Issue #169

Christmas is a-coming and the geese are getting fat, so while I've got your attention, let me ask this as well: what comics-related item would you most like to get for Xmas (or Hanukkah, or Kwanza, or whatever; we play no favorites here) this year? One thing, no laundry lists; make up your mind. And be sure to mention why you want it.Let me know, and I'll pass the list on to Santa (or David or Anansi or whoever) next week. All responses must be in by 5P Monday Dec. 13.

Me, I want Fantagraphics' B. KRIGSTEIN: COMICS ($49.95), reprinting 240 pages of great comics by one of the most innovative and thoughtful artists/designers ever to grace comics, Bernie Krigstein, in a very oversized hardcover format that really lets you see the art. It's one great hardcover, and a fit companion to the best book ever written about American comics or an American comics creator, Greg Sadowski's B. KRIGSTEIN, VOL. 1, a blazing combination of biography, aesthetics and history, also $49.95, also an oversized hardcover, also from Fantagraphics. No comics library (or education) can be considered complete without either of them.

DEAD@17: REVOLUTION #1 by Josh Howard, 32 pg. color comic (Viper Comics;$2.95)

Josh Howard's popular series about devil cults and resurrected teenagers continues with a new arc featuring heroine Nara Kilday and her protector Noel Raddemer (Howard hints at another secret relationship between them) basically chasing their own tails after getting their butts kicked bad in the previous minis. Things liven up as the struggle widens out and goes political; there seems to be a lot of revolution in the air in comics these days, highlighted by Howard's quazi-Stalinist/Patty Hearst cover, which is pretty attractive. It's off to a good start, but that's my problem with DEAD@17 so far; arcs seem to start well in their first issues, then tread water and toss in a smidge of development in their second and third issues before wrapping up in a blaze of action in the fourth. And we've gotten this many issues yet and we still know next to nothing about the bad guys, except that they're bad. Same for most of the good guys. Howard seems to have struck an audience chord, so it's hard to fault him too much, but what game's he playing that he has to keep his cards so close to his vest?

THE BALLAD OF SLEEPING BEAUTY #5 by Gabriel Benson & Mike Hawthorne, 32 pg. color comic (Beckett Comics;$1.99)

The same problem haunts this horror-western loosely based on the old fairy tale. I've liked all of it that I've read so far, but there's still the unsettling feeling it hasn't really gone anywhere. Things finally start happening with this issue, though, as vengeful gunfighter hero Cole has his final showdown against the homicidal marshal who's been dogging his heels. Nice action, but it's a bit of a letdown; after all the build-up, Marshal Drake is ultimately no real threat at all, leaving us to wonder why Cole didn't just clip him ages ago. Despite all that, I've been enjoying this series. But if people are going to plot in "trade paperback arcs" they really have to start putting a lot more thought into structure...

RUULE: KISS & TELL #6 by Jeff Amano & Craig Rousseau, 32 pg. color comic (Beckett Comics;$1.99)

KISS & TELL's another book suffering, in the long run, from weak structure. After a solid beginning, this retelling of the Samson myth in '20s mob drag (there's a strong Dashiell Hammett influence at work) has gotten choppy and repetitive, and it has gotten to the point where the characters don't make any sense at all. A woman rescues him from probable destruction so she can set him up for an ambush? Huh? The hero started out as a socially graceless lout with street smarts and incredible strength, and I realize this issue is to establish his hitting rock bottom so he has something to climb back from, but all he really seems to have done was gone from dumb to dumber. Maybe it'll hang together better as a collection...

FADE FROM GRACE #3 by Gabriel Benson & Jeff Amano (Beckett Comics;$1.99)

An interesting twist on superheroes. Just not quite interesting enough. A man somehow gains superpowers rescuing his fiancée, and, with her help, becomes a costumed hero called Fade. The stories are almost Golden Age in their simplicity (that's meant to be descriptive, not derogatory): the hero tests his powers, tracks down a villain, fights him to the death. The superhero action isn't terribly interesting, but the book gets by on a good love story at its heart, and very distinctive pop art & coloring that makes it look like absolutely nothing else on the market. That was enough to give it some oomph, but, after three issues, it needs something else if it wants to keep going.

CHILDREN OF THE GRAVE #1 & 2 by Tom Waltz & Casey Maloney, 32 pg. b&w comics (Shooting Star Comics;$2.99 @)

There are a lot of horror comics on the market and a lot of horror movies on DVD, but I can't think of any other military/horror mixes off the top of my head. A special reconnaissance team is sent into a sort of cross between Afghanistan and Bosnia, only to find themselves in league with the ghosts of dead children who want the soldiers to get their justice for them. It's a decent premise, and the art's not quite profession but not really unprofessional either, but the development suffers from severe Hollywoodism. The team can't find solid evidence of a massacre that will seal a case against an evil warlord – so the brass opts instead to order our three heroes to wipe out the warlord and his substantial army, all by themselves. The multi-ethnic team has a Hispanic member identifiable as Hispanic only because of his pencil moustache and his endlessly repetition of "pendejo" in dialogue. (We know the black guy's black because he's big, his head is shaved and he has a mouth on him like Samuel L. Jackson.) Though no religion is specifically implied and the country is fictitious, the murdering rapist villains wear turbans and have names like Akbar Assan. In other words, it all feels less like war and more like not terribly good war movies. The series is better than that – the ghost children plot gives it a nice edge, and the combat scenes are handled pretty well – so it's too bad they had to muck it up with these things.

FABLES: MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Craig Hamilton, P. Craig Russell & Steve Leialoha, 240 pg. color trade paperback (;$17.95)

Here's a series that started off strong and just keeps getting better. Whatever dimension story characters, particularly those of myth, fable and fairy tale, inhabit has been conquered bit by bit over the past few centuries by a mysterious Adversary, leaving many "fables" dead and others escaped to the relative safety of our world, where they hide out in magically protected enclaves while, theoretically, marshalling for a counter-assault. In MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS, the Adversary's forces break through with a two-pronged attack. As with other arcs, Willingham's specialties (not to fault the art, which is fine, but it's Willingham's show) are characters and intrigue, and the story's full of twists and surprises. Bigby (AKA The Big Bad) Wolf and Snow White (now pregnant with his child) remain among the most fascinating, complex heroes in comics today, with several clues dropped here about horrible deeds in Bigby's past. In fact, many secrets of the series are obliquely revealed in this arc, including the true identity of the Adversary; there's a terrific battle for the future of "Fabletown" with a great fight between witches; and the series is filled with a sophisticated grasp of politics as well. Did I mention Bigby is a really (subtly) scary guy? A very satisfying read.

LANDSCAPE OF POSSIBILITIES/NET RESULT by Nick Abadzis & Paul Peart-Smith, b&w mini-comic (self-published; no price given)

A flipbook mini-comic, with Abadzis stories on one side and Peart-Smith stories on the other. Abadzis' "Landscape Of Possibilities" is an underground comics style allegory using words as landscapes, without dialogue, and it's well-done, if a bit simplistic. (Allegories usually are.) His "Listening Not Hearing" is similar, if more traditional, and he has a good eye for visual communication; dialogue would only hurt these stories. Good art, too. Ultimately these are moralistic stories and that's their main weakness; his ideas aren't anywhere near his style in sophistication. Peart-Smith's art is also pretty good, and his stories a bit more abstract. "Safe," with only animals as characters, is Disney's nature as hell, while "One On One" is a nightmarish fantasy whose "message" is entirely open to interpretation. It's like a David Lynch short on paper. The only dialogued story in the book, Peart-Smith's "Pink Elephants," appears simplistic and even a bit trite on the surface – a dying old man recalls his life and the irredeemable errors he made during it – but ends ambiguously to cast earlier reactions to the story in doubt. If Abadzis' métier is moralism, Peart-Smith's is ambivalence, and the contrast makes the book more impressive than had they published separately. Interesting talents worth checking out; I have a feeling both of them could really do things in the future.

TREAD #7 & 8 by Greg Vondruska, b&w mini-comics (self-published;$3.00 @)

It's odd. TREAD #7, an autobiographical chapbook with several short strips illustrating episodes (ostensibly) from Vondruska's childhood along with a short story about a comic book fan's life at summer camp, seems like later work than TREAD #8, a more pedestrian piece of work that tends to play like a Bob Burden knockoff, particularly in the "Freakbrow" strips featuring a punk rocker with a Mohawk and huge eyebrows. I did like "Adventures In The Holy Bible With John The Baptist, though." Vondruska's art is adequate – again, it reminds me of Bob Burden – and his writing's not bad. He does make some basic mistakes, though – and I only bring this up because so many people do things like that, so it's hopefully illustrative – like ending his short story with "With his feet he kicked a flash light and a comic book." What else is a character going to kick something with? By definition, to kick you have to use your feet. Wtch out for things like that. #7's worth taking a look at, I'm less enamored of #8.

IT'S ONLY A GAME by Charles Schulz & Jim Sasseville, 240 pg. b&w trade paperback (;$14.95)

Back when PEANUTS was very young, Charles Shultz did another strip (or, rather, a panel, like MARMADUKE or THE FAR SIDE) called IT'S ONLY A GAME, basically single jokes about all kinds of games and sports (but mostly about bridge and bowling, it seems) that ran a little over a year and never really caught on. Reading this collection edited by Derrick Bang, it's easy to see why. Schulz was never a "humorist," per se. The humor in PEANUTS tended to be more wry and bittersweet than jokebook funny, and the strip became a runaway hit more on the strength of the characterizations and Schulz's ability to efficiently encapsulate life's little torments, pitfalls, hopes and delusions than on anything else. IT'S ONLY A GAME has no continuing characters; its humor is more whimsy than anything else. Which isn't to say it won't make you smile, but it's secondary Schulz at best. But even secondary Schulz is better than most humor strips; hardcore Schulz fans won't want to be without it.

ONE STEP AFTER ANOTHER by Fermin Solis, 38 pg. b&w trade paperback (Adhouse Books;$5.00)

A slice of life dramedy about a young immigrant woman (the setting seems to be an indeterminate European country) with a secret trying to survive her relocation. Good, highly stylized art and decent dialogue, but it collapses into expected melodrama and ends as if it fell randomly from a larger work. It's easy to admire, and hard to enjoy.

AMERICAN SPLENDOR: OUR MOVIE YEAR by Harvey Pekar & various, 174 pg. b&w trade paperback (Ballantine Books;$18.95)

It must be a pain and a blessing to be Harvey Pekar; as long as he's breathing he's never out of material. Obviously, OUR MOVIE YEAR chronicles the life of Harvey and his family from his earliest attempts to get AMERICAN SPLENDOR filmed through the aftermath of last year's "alternative hit" release. (If you haven't seen the movie with Paul Giamatti & Hope Davis as Harvey and his wife Joyce Brabner, not to mention Harvey and Joyce as Harvey and Joyce, see the DVD. It's good.) What can I say? The essence of Harvey's art is his ability to spin dross into gold, via artistic collaborators like Gary Dumm and Robert Crumb, and there's a reason why Harvey's the god of autobiographical comics. Filling out the book are various strips, including literary, movie and music reviews/biographies. The book's a choppy reading experience, but that fits the Harvey ethic too. Besides a great ear for dialogue and a loving dispassion for his material, Harvey's equivocal attitude toward his own life is his great strength; he somehow manages to be self-deprecating and self-reverential in the same breath. There's a line from REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE where James Dean looks at the "sky" at a planetarium show and says, "When you're out there, you know you've been someplace." When you've read AMERICAN SPLENDOR: OUR MOVIE YEAR, you know you've read something.

BOOK OF CHANGES (Fantagraphics Books;$14.95), 264 pg. trade paperback & TALK TO HER (Fantagraphics Books;$16.95) 246 pg. trade paperback by Kristine McKenna,

Having been both an interviewer (I made a partial living at it for severeal years) and interviewee, trust me when I say good interviewers are rare. Really rare. Especially in pop culture, where many interviewers seem to think the only proper modes are either sycophancy or judgmentalism, and many see the form as little more than a way to get themselves over, often at the subject's expense. Especially when the subject is someone whose work you admire (and way too many interviewers still confuse the artist and the work), a good interview is a balancing act of objectivity and passion. It's far easier to do a superficial interview than one that puts either interviewer or interviewee on the line, which may be why Internet interviews tend to be little more than marketing pieces to sell product. But McKenna's the real deal, cutting to the bone with surgical precision as she interviews musicians, actors, authors, artists and cartoonists – the contents pages of these books read like a who's who of creative thinking in the last 50 years: Kenneth Anger, William Burroughs, Nick Cave, Robert Crumb, Pauline Kael, Iggy Pop, Robert Raushenberg, Wim Wender, Neil Young, David Lynch, Robert Altman, Orson Welles, Elvis Costello, John Lydon and dozens of others – to cast a clear but rarely judgmental light on their work, philosophies and persons. Comics fans will find illustrations by various comics artists here, from Charles Burns and Daniel Clowes to Arnold Roth and Rick Veitch, but anyone who aspires to interviewing will want to read these books to see how it's done. Everyone else will want to read them for fascinating insights into the creative life. Highly recommended.

"...original comics don't actually sell in the Red states of America – that the political borderlines there are also cultural borderlines. Just as there are isolated political Blue islands in Red America, there are also island comics stores, to be certain – but that the audiences for progressive comics are largely contained in the coasts and those few Blue states in the north. The broader sweep of Jesusland is a dead zone, to massively generalise."

He reported he'd already heard from one publisher who'd come to the same conclusion and was positioning their promotion appropriately.

I don't think this is anything new – I remember First Comics c. 1988 studied their sales to determine sales patterns and it turned out the two biggest islands of WHISPER fandom were the state of California and, for some reason, Atlanta GA; I know it was roughly the same for several First titles, but I don't remember any other specifics – but this whole Red America/Blue America meme (which is mostly nonsense but the press have to hang their hats on something) highlights something I've been thinking about for awhile: the constantly changing nature of our civilization. Let's quickly look at how things have changed so far: we started with, as far as anyone knows, acute tribalism. Your little group (usually called "The People," to differentiate them from all those other people who weren't "The People") were all you could trust to keep you alive. Somewhere along the line this evolved into small, relatively stable communities, which evolved into cities and city-states. Whatever the other effects of wars, once tribes got over wholesale slaughter of defeated enemies, wars tended to merge cultures; city-states aggregated into countries, and some of these evolved into empires, which generally further homogenized cultures. Empires collapsed of their own weight, as empires are wont to, and disintegrating empires broke into often feuding principalities, which, at least in Europe, eventually merged into nations. The last three or four hundred years have seen the rise of nations, and now may be seeing their decline as new structures slowly take their place. (Not that people who can't seem to learn from history don't keep trying to resurrect the idea of empire, but, as most European nations eventually learned, empires are often more trouble than they're worth.)

In the last fifty years or so, we've seen the rise of multinational corporations, increasingly promoting their own values, interests and "laws" in contravention of national interests, and a few of them having greater GNPs than most countries, and many have greater influence than many countries. These multinationals, not without some justification, have given rise to many conspiracy theories and paranoid fiction, and, certainly, they've generated considerable change in the way the world is run. But they're still slaves to laws of economic interest, if not necessarily laws of any one nation. Even if they only serve their own bottom lines, that's at least something we can be relatively sure of.

We now seem to have gotten to the point where we're no longer clear on what constitutes a nation. If "Red America" and "Blue America" are indicators, it's not "national boundaries"; we don't even know where ours are. It's hard to even be sure if there are any unifying principles to America anymore. Then you've got groups like al-Qaeda, who are spoken of as if they're nations unto themselves. Obviously, like the 32 pg. comic book, the concept of "nation" isn't going away anytime soon, but, like the 32 pg. comic book, that doesn't mean it isn't already obsolete. The Internet has generated a curious flux; more than ever, regardless of where you live, the Internet has made it much easier to be part of "virtual nations" that may or may not correspond to the nation you physically live in. This isn't so much a disintegration of the social fabric as a reweaving and realignment of it.

So that's the crux of the theory that's slowly forming in my head, partly because I know people in Italy, Scotland, Australia, Hong Kong, Argentina, Canada, the USA, Singapore and dozens of other countries are reading this right now: we are on the verge of physical nations being next to meaningless while "virtual nations" rise. What kinds of political structures would surface in a world where citizenship is determined by choice rather than accident of birth? What kind of world could something like this make?

Speaking of "Jesusland," there's an interesting article at Counterpunch statistically debunking the now generally-accepted theory that HP's re-election represented a surge of religious fervor in America. Turns out, a) "Between 2000 and 2004, President Bush's largest gains occurred among less religious voters, not among more religious voters."; b) Kerry increased the Democratic ratio of votes in rural and small town America while HP increased the Republican ratio of votes in cities; c) African-Americans who identified themselves as frequent churchgoers were more likely to vote for Kerry, not less. All this and more was based on analysis of exit polls, which may not be entirely accurate but at least represent real data (or the closest to it we're likely to get), as opposed to the spin doctoring the press lazily picked up on. There were many reasons HP won the election – but religion, except among whites, doesn't seem to have been one of them.

If you'd like to see your own artwork in TWO HEADS TALK, just follow these simple instructions:

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 heads will be used eventually. Can fame and fortune be far behind?

Beau Smith's column runs a very amusing interview with Gail Simone this week. As well as fannish things like the real difference between The Huntress and The Black Canary, it features Gail calling Beau on the carpet on the whole "manliness" thing, bringing up the overbearing number of swaggering Internet clods who would badly moisten their own shoes at the slightest hint of conflict in the real world. By the way, Gail isn't kidding about that Bigfoot thing...

A big welcome back to DC editor Bob Schreck, who'd been out since around Halloween due to surgery. He is now officially The Teflon Editor, and has the medical bill to prove it. Back in the office now, expect him to be back on the dance floor come convention season.

My apologies to Rick Spears, writer of the excellent TEENAGERS FROM MARS trade paperback I reviewed last week. I inadvertently referred to him as Rob Spears, mixing his name up with the artist Rob G.'s. How about helping me make it up to him by telling your retailer to order TEENAGERS FROM MARS from Gigantic Graphic Novels. (By the way, Mars has nothing to do with it; it's about, among other things, teenagers who feel like they must be from some planet other than the one they're on.)

I know I have other things to mention but they're walking around me right now, so check back next week to see what I forgot. Meanwhile, don't forget my LAST HEROES graphic novel, co-created and drawn by Gil Kane prior to his death, is now available from iBooks, while the complete collection of my Master Of The Obvious essays, TOTALLY OBVIOUS, is available on .pdf at bargain prices at Paper Movies, where there's also a comprehensive list of everything else I have available. Just some things to put your Xmas stocking money toward... Also don't forget my column FUN! FUN! FUN! now runs regularly in every issue of THE COMICS JOURNAL. Do I know how to commit career suicide, or what?

A whole other slew of reviews next week, and a bunch of other special stuff (including your composite Xmasetc. List), if I can pull it together... Happy St. Nicholas and Pearl Harbor Days.

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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