Issue #166

1) What's your favorite comic of 2004?

2) What's your favorite comics related moment?

3) What's the worst thing to happen in comics in 2004?

4) What's your most fervid hope for comics in 2005?

5) What aspect of comics in 2005 are you most looking forward to?

6) What's your worst fear for comics in 2005?

If some of those seem open to interpretation, that's just the way it is. Looking forward to seeing (and revealing) all your answers. In the meantime, this is the most passionate e-mail I've received lately:

"I'm writing to tell you of recent news: according to Gamespot, Marvel is suing NCSoft, a computer game manufacturer, over their City of Heroes videogame. For copyright infringement.

The theory goes like this: NCSoft's game, a massively-multiplayer-online-role-playing-game (MMORPG), enables players to dress their superheroic personae in a variety of traditional superhero costumes. A great many players have chosen to make costumes that look similar to (or in many cases exactly like) those of existing comic characters whose trademarks are owned by Marvel. I personally have seen pictures of Iron Man, Hulk, and X-Men clones, both male and female. But frankly one of the strengths of COH's character-creation system seems to be that you can make your character look like ANY comic book character who ever existed, from John Constantine to Spider-Man, Elektra, and the Silver Surfer. (I must admit that I have never played the game myself. But I have seen a great many screenshots).

The problem is Marvel's case is garbage. NCSoft gave the ability to make personae who look like Marvel properties to the players, but it is the players themselves who make the decisions - they are not forced by any gameplay mechanic into imitating a particular superhero. Marvel does not have a trademark on capes, boots, tights, hoods, cowls, gloves, shirts with symbols in general, or body types. Under the same theory Marvel is using to sue NCSoft, any artist could sue a pencil manufacturer for giving people the ability to copy his work. In this case, Marvel is suing NCSoft for giving its players the ability to make superheroes which can bear a resemblance to superheroes made by one of the two companies which have dominated the genre for the past fifty years. Moresoever, the players who make these characters are doing so for the enjoyment of the game which they have already paid to play - NCSoft is not making money off of specific Marvel-rip-off characters, and the players themselves are protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of artistic expression.

I'm informing you of this in the hopes that you'll add your hefty voice to what I hope will become a chorus of disapproval over this lawsuit. I like lawsuits in general, but I like the First Amendment more. Bad enough that Marvel appears to be on the verge of becoming a shill for the Bush Administration over the Iraqi War. Now they are doing this. Will they sue my brother for making tracings of Avengers comics in his youth? Will they sue bodybuilders for daring to have muscles like Captain America? Will Stan Lee sue me for imitating his breathlessly hyperbolic style in this e-mail? WELL?!!!!!! (Excuse me, I have to lie down now.)"

I'm not surprised.

I'm also not familiar with the particulars of the case, nor have I have been to the site or played the game. If it's bunk, as you suggest, a court will throw it out as soon as it gets anywhere near. But I dunno; from what you describe, Marvel might not be able to win a case, but they may have cause for one. NCSoft isn't forcing players to "dress up" as Marvel characters, it's true, but they're laying out familiar accoutrements for them. Players aren't manufacturing the pieces from scratch, they're organizing the familiar pieces offered into familiar costumes, but it's not the pieces that are trademark infringement, it's the end product. They may not be forcing Marvel mimicry but they're certainly facilitating it. NCSoft may not be specifically making money off Marvel ripoff characters, but there's more to infringement than money; NCSoft is building a marketable reputation for themselves based at least in part on those ripoffs, and that's potentially money down the road. Marvel's got a duty to pursue anything they perceive as trademark infringement, so the lawsuit doesn't surprise me, and I also wouldn't be surprised if it gets settled long before it gets anywhere near a courtroom; it would surprise me if it didn't. But as for whether the case has real merit or is winnable, y'got me.

I doubt Stan could sue you for imitating his breathlessly hyperbolic style (you need more alliteration, by the way; a lot more), but just to be safe, don't say "Excelsior" anytime soon, okay?

I never miss a Dwight Yoakam album – Yoakam's got a terrific voice, and he's good at writing and even better at choosing material (his latest album is POPULATION ME (, and you're currently not likelier to find a more consistently listenable collection of pop songs in any genre) – but the vast majority of country music leaves me cold. Most "Americana" (for those who came in late, that's record company pigeonholing of roots rock, non-Nashville country and valium folk-rock under one convenient umbrella) is unbearable, but Dave Alvin is the real deal, and his latest album, ASHGROVE (Yep Roc Records), is brilliant, a passionate collection of blues, ballads and rockers drenched in loss and intelligence, and Alvin's one of the great American songwriters as well. But I talk about those, people will think that's the only sort of music I listen to. My listening habits are extremely eclectic: whatever I happen to feel like at the moment. There's no musical genre (except maybe polka) so awful something good can't come from it. I've even heard a good disco album. (Canadian songbird Nanette Workman's 1977 IF IT WASN'T FOR THE MONEY.) But what I listen to means nothing in terms of what I will listen to. I still own one of the country's largest collection of Karlheinz Stockhausen albums (unfortunately, most are on vinyl, which I have no way to play these days) and a decent number of Iannis Xenakis recordings, and I still love all that music, but you couldn't make me listen to Luigi Nono these days at gunpoint. Liking Derek Bailey isn't the same thing as liking jazz. I've been getting my pop/rock fixes these days from a variety of tracks like the aforementioned "1985," but for albums, the only good recent ones I've heard are The Cure's latest, unpredictably named THE CURE (Geffen Records) which is sort of a recreation of their sound from the early part of their careers, and pleasantly successful at it, but doesn't have any really memorable songs ala "Jumping Someone Else's Train" or "In Between Days"; and Las Vegas' own The Killers (who had to leave town to get noticed here), on HOT FUSS (Island Records). Listening to the Killers is like living catalog descriptions for scotches, where they say brewing has imparted an iodine flavor and the subtle taste of berries and that sort of thing; the band somehow assimilated the best of early '80s British new wave, before it all got formulaic – I can hear Joy Division and The Cure in them, yet they're not copyists, and is that Ultravox? Cowboys International? – filtered through a more modern slightly harder edge. Great car music.

But the best thing that's happened to music lately is eMusic, an online music service that sells legit MP3 for about a quarter a track. They recently shifted to a limited subscription format that allows you to download between 40 and 90 tracks a month for a set fee, but the advantage of eMusic (besides no proprietary formats; they play on any MP3 player, can be burned to CD, etc. with no problem) is its focus: mostly independent labels, of all kinds of music from hard rock to classical to klezmer. Dig and you can find goldmines of material. I recently caught up on Holger Czukay, who had two albums on the site I'd never heard before, Diamanda Galas, Dave Alvin and John Hiatt tracks off tribute anthologies I'd never heard of, the complete Third Ear Band catalog, and an unknown Firesign Theatre compilation. And that's barely scraping the surface. They offer a free two week trial of fifty track downloads. Being an eclectic listener is exhausting work, but eMusic makes it much easier. Nice download manager too.

If you're interested in seeing your art appear in TWO HEADS TALK, follow these simple rules and notoriety beyond your wildest dreams will one day be yours:

  1. All panels should be 3" wide x 6" tall jpgs, 150 dpi.
  2. All panels should be head and shoulder shots of original characters. No trademarked characters of any sort please. (But don't worry: copyright will be assigned to you.)
  3. Head and shoulder shots should fill only the bottom 3" of the panel. Leave the top half blank, please. (You can put color there, just not figure work.)
  4. One head per panel, thanks. Color or black and white, your choice.
  5. Don't put any borders on the panels.
  6. Email it to me, with "Head" in the subject line so I know don't think it's a virus, because I'll trash an unknown attachment in a heartbeat.
  7. Include a website or some other contact information so that your new legion of fans will be able to find you.

And that's it. All properly formatted heads will be used eventually. Can fame and fortune be far behind?

Also out is the largely ineffectual (but not for lack of trying) Colin Powell, whether because he's worn out from beating his head against a wall or because being internationally respected is contrary to current White House policy, as Powell often was. Too bad he'll now largely be remembered as an apologist for policies he mostly didn't agree with. Even more unfortunate is his rumored replacement as Secretary of State, current national security advisor Condaleeza Rice, an "intelligence expert" so astute she has never gotten a single thing right, from the collapse of Communist Russia (she insisted it was a smokescreen for a commie plot) to 9/11 (she didn't think it worth passing along Clinton admin info on al-Qaeda plans) to Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. More fun.

But it's been a quiet couple weeks since the election, with Washington in post-campaign exhaustion and the administration quietly closing ranks. Little mentioned in the news has been new CIA director (and HP acolyte) Porter Goss, who most recently cleared out deputy operations director Stephen Kappes and his deputy Michael Sulick, reportedly on orders from The Dick to make the agency pay for covering its own ass by letting the media know no connections could be made between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, a claim central to the administration's call for an invasion of Iraq. Since his confirmation as director, Goss has wasted no time reasserting the CIA's traditional role as yes-man to the White House, explaining why the White House's idea of "intelligence reform" includes no independent oversight of intelligence but places that responsibility strictly in the White House, contrary to Congress's recommendations.

But the post-election quiet also extends to the mainstream media's refusal to look into widening claims of intimidation and fraud at polls throughout the country on election day. Whether the numbers involved would have been big enough to affect the vote (though, in the electoral system, that can be a very small number, as was demonstrated in 2000) is beside the point; if abuses have occurred, it's important to uncover and stop them before the next election. The complaints – many of them – have come in from Florida, Ohio, Nevada, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and other states, mainly from minority (specifically Black but also Hispanic) communities, and most of them repeating complaints from Florida in the wake of 2000's semi-election. Voter registrations lost, harassment at polls by police, voters being sent from where they're supposed to vote to other precincts only to learn they can't vote there but not being able to make it back to the original precinct before the polls close, intimidation, posted notices in public places that Democrats could only vote on Wednesday, etc. Suddenly we're back in 1868, but newspapers don't want headlines like that. But it's clear there's some sort of clandestine movement toward intentional disenfranchisement of large and specific sectors of the population, and there are already independent journalists investigating. Expect some major books on the matter by next Christmas.

Much more important to cover, apparently, is the new push by some conservative to alter the Constitution to allow Arnold Schwarzenegger (provided his gubernatorial reign in California doesn't blow up on him) to run for president in 2008. (Someone wrote after last week's article to mention that Jeb Bush is the Republican man of the hour for 2008, which is likely, but we'll see how far Ahnuld gets.) Somehow in the space of only a couple years we've gone from the need to protect the country against all foreign influence to rewriting the Constitution, which currently requires the mightiest office in the land (and now, dare I say it, the world) be occupied only by citizens born in America, so that anyone can move here and get the job, provided they jump through the right hoops. This is the sort of thinking that comes of only taking electability into consideration. I don't think Ahnuld himself is particularly dangerous, Nazi-worshipping past or not – at this point he's just another political hack, and his promise to put California back on the map has so far largely turned out to be hot air – but it's a dangerous precedent to set. The Constitution should only be messed with to redress specific and grievous oversights or wrongs, not simply for political convenience. Isn't that what conservatives used to preach?

B.A.B.E. FORCE: JURASSIC TRAILER PARK #2 by Kirk Kushin & Diego Barreto, b&w 24 pg. comic (Forcewërks Productions;$2.50)

B.A.B.E. FORCE has slowly evolved from a stone embarrassment to a nice little action/humor book. Totally tongue-in-cheek, featuring a collection of stacked spies (and a couple male sidekicks) against... well... Wal-Mart, really, there are a few nice touches, like the friendliest supervillian in comics history, and the dumb blonde jokes have mostly been winnowed out. Plot and writing are lightweight but decent, but the real attraction is Diego (son of Eduardo) Baretto's art, which has very quickly evolved and provides a nicely realistic anchor for the action. The only reason I hesitate to praise him too much is that someone else will snatch him up before I have the chance to work with him, but he makes this book one of the most professional looking independents out there.

GAG! #1 by Barry Dutter & various, b&w 48 pg. magazine (Barrister Publications;$4.95)

Dutter, writer-editor-publisher of the unfortunately but appropriately named GAG! claims the magazine is the humor rag of the new generation, but it's really the humor rag for people who think MAD is just too damn sophisticated. Dutter's problem is his writing is too hamfisted to be funny; he seems to operate on the premise that all his premises are hysterical, and that a funny premise obviates the need for actual jokes. Mostly decent artwork, but only Tom Fleming and Mike Kazaleh's stands out.

SYLVIA FAUST #2 by Jason Henderson & Greg Scott, color 32 pg. comic (Image;$2.95)

A hard one to peg. On the one hand, Henderson & Scott, whose art has appealingly opened up to allow Leslie Ann Barkley's coloring to carry a lot of the emotional load, play this as a relaxed, upscale romance comic, and there are some fine moments, like Sylvia's new romantic interest recalling his meta-fascination with THE MAGNIFICENT 7 as Sylvia magically "illustrates" his impressions. On the other hand, it's a fantasy comic – she's a otherworldly princess in self-exile from her homeland – that uncomfortably evokes some of the worst elements of DC's BOOKS OF MAGIC monthly. For now, it's pretty good.

WHAT'RE YOU LOOKIN' AT?!, Vol. I of the collected ANGRY YOUTH COMIX by Johnny Ryan, b&w 152 pg. trade paperback (Fantagraphics Books;$16.95)

Ryan's been praised by hordes from Matt Groening to Peter Bagge, but I don't get it. Sexist, racist, pointlessly vulgar, obsessed with bodily bi-products, witlessly infantile. If there was a hint of satire in it, I could maybe work up interest. But if this is the sort of thing that appeals to you, it's a treasure trove.

The Comics Journal Library: DRAWING THE LINE, interviews with Jules Feiffer, David Levine, Edward Sorel and Ralph Steadman by Gary Groth, color 150 pg. trade paperback (Fantagraphics Books;$22.95)

Whatever else you can say about Groth, he has certainly mastered the art of the interview. Ripped from the pages of THE COMICS JOURNAL, these are fascinating, probing interviews with some of the most original and influential cartoonists and illustrations of our era, dissecting their work and attitudes on all sorts of levels: artistically, politically, culturally, socially, personally. With copious, finely reproduced illustrations. Most fascinating are the lengthy interviews with Feiffer, who rose from Eisner's shop to become the first great "alternative" cartoonist, and Steadman, who revolutionized not only illustration but, by proxy (hi, Bill!), comics. There are very few books that are mandatory reading if you're really interested in comics from all angles; this is one of them.

Next week (so far): Blab 15, Fred The Clown, Children Of The Grave, and maybe some recent manga.

If anyone out there reads Polish (I don't), the online Polish popular culture magazine ESENSJA has reprinted me, with permission, courtesy of Marcin Herman. Thanks, Marcin.

Fantagraphics, who saw their shaky fortunes of 2003 shift dramatically in '04 due to alliances with W.W. Norton Publishers, Creative Media and the Charles Schulz estate, sent around their Spring '05 catalog, mainly intended for bookstores, covering intended releases from April-August '05. Some hot books coming up. (Conflict of interest disclaimer: I'm currently writing a column every issue in THE COMICS JOURNAL, specifically examining aspects of what's usually called "mainstream comics" that the Journal has mostly ignored over the last few years. But, trust me, they don't pay me enough to buy my opinions.) There's the usual supply of "art comics" (new books by Jim Woodring, Richard Sala, Thomas Ott and Paul Hornschemeier, among others), another volume of THE COMPLETE PEANUTS, the final volume of THE COMPLETE CRUMB, and a volume of Winsor McCay rarities. But here's what's really got my interest: the first volume of Roberta Gregory's Bitchy Bitch strips, LIFE'S A BITCH; THE GREAT COMICS ILLUSTRATORS, reprinting exhaustive journal interviews with Burne Hogarth, Frank Frazetta, Dave Stevens and Mark Schultz; Barry Windsor-Smith's FREEBOOTERS collection; and – this is the big one – SEX, ROCK'N'ROLL & OPTICAL ILLUSIONS, a long, long overdue retrospective of Victor Moscoso's brilliant comics and poster art that changed the face of pop art across the board in the '60s. Moscoso's one of those guys stolen from relentlessly but never duplicated; the epitome (and pinnacle!) of psychedelic art, his work was the perfect backdrop for any hallucination, and damn fine without any. Great catalog, and a nice little artifact by itself. See if you can score a copy.

Harry Lampert, who co-created The Flash with Gardner Fox in 1940, died last week at 88. I never cared much for his art (neither did he, apparently, at least not on THE FLASH), but I recognize his significance for the medium. Heidi MacDonald has a nice little obit for him at The Beat.

By the time you read this, the special two-hour first episode of AMAZING RACE 6 (CBS, Tuesdays 9P) will have aired, but CBS is kindly rerunning it on Saturday so you've got no excuse. (Check local listings; I can't be bothered.) For those who came in late, AMAZING RACE is the only reality show (or game show) worth watching – a cornucopia of great action, humor, emotional tension and the greatest locales on TV, really interesting places you probably have never seen before – and one of the few that doesn't rely on humiliating its contestants. Skill, brains and strategy, or lack of them, as eleven teams of two race around the world, solving clues and pushing themselves past their limits to win a million dollars at the finish line. Great fun.

Speaking of great fun, THE O.C. (Fox, Thursdays 8P) has been practically flawless since its return a couple weeks ago, and, Mischa Barton aside, still has about the most personable cast on TV, and some of the best characters and dialogue. Last week, it also included Seth Cohen (Adam Brody), who's really the sleeper lead of the show, starting up a comic book club in his high school, only to shatter many cherished public (and industry) myths about comics fans with a conversation both geekily superfluous and amazingly informed that named Brian Bendis the best writer in comics. Whoda thunk we'd ever have seen that during prime time, and it wouldn't come off as utterly ridiculous? THE O.C. is currently fourth in the time slot, but still doing well for a Fox show and kicking JOEY's butt with the critical 18-49 demographic. Combined with the incredible success of the clever and entertaining DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES (ABC, Sundays 9P; #2 this week and roaring up on CSI's tail, and Marcia Cross is now officially the scariest actress on TV, even excelling THE O.C.'s Melinda Clarke) and the Emmy-promoted rise of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, it's making network TV safe for quirkiness again.

Cheesy self-promotion dept: Don't forget THE LAST HEROES, a hardcover collecting all four issues of the EDGE mini-series Gil Kane and I did for Malibu in the '90s, including the previously unpublished fourth issue and sundry extras, out this week from iBooks. Also don't forget TOTALLY OBVIOUS: the complete Master Of The Obvious, collecting all my online essays from 1999-2001, with lots of outlooks and information on all aspects of the comics industry (and its place in our overall culture), is available on .pdf for a low, low price at Paper Movies, in two different flavors: optimized to print out or to read onscreen. Hunt 'em down.

More information on my newest projects coming up soon.

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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