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Issue #146

Not great.

The word has already gone out that it's the greatest superhero movie ever, like that'd be difficult. Me, I'd say that's probably still X-MEN 2. But SPIDER-MAN 2 is a vast improvement on the first SPIDER-MAN movie, and certainly has the best superhero action on screen. They got it exactly right. It's a beautiful thing, worth the cost of a ticket on its own. Despite occasional visual homages to later versions like AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #50 (the film is rife with shots and sequences lifted straight from old comic books), the Spider-Man here is Steve Ditko's Spider-Man, rubbery and fluid, twisting through the action at breakneck speed. The fight scenes move like a runaway train (quite literally at one point), punches, webbing and mechanical arms flying like AK-47 fire. When Spider-Man and Dr. Octopus get hit, they might not get stopped, but they act like they're getting hit. The fight scenes are absolutely credible, really like a Ditko comic brought to life. The film is helped immensely by Alfred Molina as Dr. Octopus, a character far more interesting in the movie than he ever was in the comics (where he has more often than not been treated as a joke). Molina brings a huge amount of humanity to the character, as both nice guy physicist Otto Octavius and his deranged alter ego. He even makes the character's forced 11th hour transformation, necessary to bring the film to a close, as believable as possible. The film may not be great, but Molina is.

Pretty much every time Molina's offscreen, though, the film grinds to a turgid halt. Seemingly endless sequences of Peter Parker, now two years on from the first movie, dodging the rent money from the seedy landlord of the squalid apartment he now lives in while attending college, which he's failing because being Spider-Man is destroying his life. Mary Jane is a perfume model now, and incongruously doing Oscar Wilde off-Broadway in a tiny theater and a bad English accent. Aunt May's still rattling around the old house in Queens, scrounging for money and wringing her hands over Uncle Ben's death. Harry Osborn runs his dead father's company and obsesses over revenge on Spider-Man for daddy's death. (A Harry sequence toward the end that foreshadows the third movie is horrifying for all the wrong reasons.) And all this is part of the problem: much of the story hinges on Peter's unwillingness to declare his love for Mary Jane and drag her into his dangerous life, because he'll always have enemies and they'll try to get to him through her. But there's not the slightest sense that anything of consequence (aside from Peter's inability to hold a job) has even happened in two years. Where are all these villains who are going to threaten Mary Jane, how will they know she has anything to do with Spider-Man, and what does it matter since the only two villains who have apparently appeared in two years go after her anyway?! (One sequence – and I'm not spoiling anything since it was in the trailers – is great and awful at the same time: Peter and Mary Jane sit in a coffee shop, and Dr. Octopus gets their attention by throwing a car through the window (apparently from several blocks away). Only Peter's spider-powers save their lives. Doc Ock needs them alive. So either he knows Peter's Spider-Man and will save them, in which case the scene is unnecessary, or he's trying to kill them and he's a complete idiot. It's stuff like this that drives me nuts: great visuals that make absolutely no sense.

What in the story doesn't revolve around the Peter-MJ romance not only revolves around the traditional Spider-Man theme of "with great power comes great responsibility," it turns the theme into a massive blunt object that nearly beats the film to death. (JK Simmons' great portrayal of newspaper publisher Jonah Jameson is the only thing that rescues the non-Spidey/Doc Ock parts of the film, and he's damn near brilliant in it, having a great time with every line, but Bill Nunn's petulant Robbie Robertson is just annoying, far more Foggy Nelson than Robbie.) It's hard to believe it took Alfred Gough & Miles Millar (SMALLVILLE) and Michael Chabon (THE ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY), all pretty clever guys who are willing to take risks, to toss together a bunch of Spider-Man comics in a Cuisinart, and it's unfortunate that much of the movie thematically rests on comic book clichés without trying to find interesting solutions or alternatives to them, though I suspect that was imposed from on high by the multitude of producers and exec producers.

The film also commits the one unpardonable sin of superhero movies (very popular with producers and actors who want the audience to see plenty of star power on the screen) which practically every one of them commits, but SPIDER-MAN 2 does it numerous times: he keeps taking his damn mask off in action! Plus, why is it a &^@$ing rule in Hollywood that every villain must learn the hero's true identity? Why do they feel they have to do that in every stinking movie? What's the point of even putting them in a mask? No wonder Peter Parker's obsessed with threat to his loved ones; he keeps showing his face to every damn person who walks by!

Maybe by the next one they'll figure out a way to do the great action scenes, apply some actual logic to the overall film and come up with an arc for Peter Parker than actually makes sense. I know they can do it. They did it for Doctor Octopus.

It seems to me there's still some value in the event, if it were handled properly. Do the organizers issue press blitz instructions? Are publishers really putting their best product forward for it? If we, as a business, keep doing this thing, it can't be simply "something we do." It has to be constructed, molded in every way toward drawing people in for the event and keeping them interested afterward. All the books put out for Free Comics Day last year, did their sales rise as a result? Did a significant number of people who picked up free comics come back to pay for more later, either the specific titles promoted or others? Have comics shops experienced a genuine rise of audience and profit as a result of the event? These questions need to be asked. (I'd love to hear specifically from retailers on this.) Has there been a steady attrition from year to year? If Free Comics Day isn't affecting overall sales, are there ways of making it more effective? Or should it be abandoned in favor of another approach?

Someone mentioned the other day that Crossgen is the new Now Comics. Now tried to become a big deal in the '80s, and spent itself into the ground while stiffing/alienating tons of talent (not to mention distributors and others) doing it, a disgustingly recurring pattern in comics publishing that has done more to keep Marvel and DC the premier markets for comics work. A problem with this is that we exist in a much more rarified ecosystem now. Cash doesn't flow much in the comics industry, but debt does. Fortunately Diamond wasn't owed much, but anything that would seriously affect Diamond would bring the whole business to its knees, as survivors of distributor collapses can tell you. (Given the economics of modern distribution, I'm assuming the 22 grand debt was for ads in PREVIEWS, not costs involving distributing Crossgen books, but who knows?) No doubt DC and Marvel would find a way to survive, but a collapse for Diamond (not that I'm expecting it; this is cautionary, not predictive) would destroy everything else in the business. Except manga, and Diamond even has a tightening grip on that. Crossgen blew through far more money than they needed to, trying to rapidly come across as "a big deal" when lowered expenses and slower growth could have given them more time to adapt and adjust to changing circumstances – the way they were set up they were stuck on their path whether they liked it or not – and freelancers (and sympathicos) who were burned by them are certainly welcome to bask in a sense of revenge, now that the company's in ruins (sure, they could come back; Now even threatens to, every so often), but every company collapse these days is a sobering reminder of just how fragile (and badly planned) the business often is.

We've surrendered him to the Iraqis, except he'll still be guarded by American troops. Who, theoretically, won't be answerable to Iraqis. So we still have custody of Saddam in every way but officially.

Back home, the anemic 911 commission has finally declared there is no evidence Saddam ever had any connection to al Qaeda. In other news, Earth orbits the sun. This hasn't stopped VP Robo-Cheney (if you don't read the WEEKLY WORLD NEWS or the NEW YORK TIMES, you probably don't get that one) from mechanically continuing to refer to the mythical connection whenever he makes a speech anywhere, though he now brags that he knows better than the commission because the White House had compelling information they refused to share with them. That's one of the best political shell games there is – "we know better than you because we have evidence you're not allowed to see, so trust us" – but that doesn't change the fact that the administration's claims going into war with Iraq were the modern equivalent of Lyndon Johnson's non-existent "Gulf Of Tonkin incident" that incited our massive invasion (though, technically, not a real war) of Vietnam in the '60s. Time moves much faster now, apparently. It took five or six years in the '60s for the bulk of the population to decide the Vietnam War was a bad idea, but we haven't been knee deep in Iraq for a year and a half yet and already the polls have swung more than 60% against. Now Allawi gets to be the new Thieu.

The biggest shell game of the week was played by the Supreme Court, though, which decided to dodge the Jose Padillo bullet by claiming his lawyer filed a writ of habeus corpus in the wrong court and against the wrong man when the government neglected to tell her (adamantly refused to, in fact) that her client had been moved to a new jurisdiction. But wait! They did "uphold" the right of another American citizen supposedly involved in terrorism, Yaser Esam Hamdi, to prove his innocence if he can – but also upheld the government's right to hold him indefinitely without ever charging him with a crime. Think about that; according to the Supreme Court, the government now doesn't have to prove Hamdi guilty of anything. He has to prove his innocence – and do it from inside a jail cell. But at least he gets a lawyer. At attorney general John Ashcroft's discretion, of course. (Remember Ashcroft's little shell game, from his Senate confirmation hearings? Asked if he'll let his whacko religious beliefs dictate how he does his job, he answered that he would operate according to the law, never mentioning that the law would be changed to fit how he operates. It's a tack the Hand Puppet and his administration have also taken regarding the torture in Abu Ghraib. When asked whether such behavior was moral, the Hand Puppet repeated refused to address it and insisted instead that US troops would say "within the law"... even as memo after memo came out about his administration for years investigating just how far torture can go and still be considered legal.) The really good news is that the Court also decided Guantanamo prisoners can petition to challenge their incarceration. It just didn't mention who had to pay attention to those petitions, presumably leaving that to future courts to decide. As Neil Young once sang, they give you this but you pay for that.

Of course, the press still runs the biggest shell game in town, because, to listen to them tell it, freedom is now running amok, both in America and abroad. But they're so deep into lying about this crap now, they either have to continue with it or flush whatever slender illusion of credibility they have left. A lot of that going around these days.

(L - R: 1-4 Dan Barry, 5-6 Sy Barry)

Also rescued from oblivion is Bill Jankowski & Mark Gallivan's action hero parody, Dangerman, in THE ULTIMATE DANGER COMICS COLLECTION: POST-HUMOROUS (SSS Comics; $9.95). Dick Boulder's a foul-mouthed, amoral, guntoting, motorcycle riding private detective in a Spirit mask, the cover's an "homage" to Will Eisner, and if GODFATHER jokes are still in vogue in your neighborhood and your idea of uproarious comedy is naming a black boxer "Iron" Tyke Dyson, this may be the book for you. It's okay.

Enrico Casarosa's THE ADVENTURES OF MIA (Monkeysuit Press; $3.99) returns for a second issue, and I sort of wish it hadn't. The first issue about Casarosa's funny animal girl pilot in Fascist Italy was a little gem of a book, well-drawn and tight, a satisfying read. This issue's just as well drawn, but it's also "decompressed" storytelling at its worst, an awful lot of pages of nothing at all happening. It doesn't even create much of a mood. That's too bad because it's one of those books I'd really prefer to like, but, as a very thin (if lengthy) prelude to what looks to be the main adventure (it continues), it's just too much money for too little, and even Mia doesn't really do anything in it. Big talent, bad misstep.

B.A.B.E. FORCE has become sort of a guilty pleasure. I wouldn't actually say it's good, but it's always unexpectedly entertaining, esp. as it shifts away from the bimbo spy stars toward the supporting characters and the charmingly obtuse nominal villain Dr. Chaos, who's really a nice guy more or less oblivious to his evil sister's sinister machinations. The #0 Free Comic Book Day issue, a flip book of B.A.B.E. FORCE on one side and DR. CHAOS' COMIC CORNUCOPIA on the other, has one thing really going for it: unexpectedly good art from Diego Barretto (Eduardo's son, I believe). The flip book has always as good, if more avant-garde art, from Diego Jourdan. If you get to a Free Comic Book Day, check it out. You can't beat the price. (The stories, by the way, are more or less ephemeral, existing mainly to fill the new reader in on the concepts, such as they are.)

And we're out of time already; where does Tuesday go? Barely scratched the surface of the review pile too, so the rest of them get clipped next week. Wouldn't want to review them without reading them, after all...

In other news, Avatar Press has resolicited my 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.

As I mentioned last week, IBooks will be publishing the complete EDGE as THE LAST HEROES in August, 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.

BADLANDS: THE UNPRODUCED SCREENPLAY: text from AiT/PlanetLar

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.

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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.

Ghost Rider RObbie Reyes
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