Issue #172

For some reason, the Las Vegas-Clark County Library System keeps up fairly well with graphic novels and comics trade paperbacks, particularly indie graphic novels and Marvel/DC collections and has recently been vastly expanding their comics collection, and they periodically give all of it prominent display. So I check their stacks every couple weeks; it helps me keep up. And every so often I find something that slipped by me completely.

Like the 1999 Howard Chaykin/David Tischman/Williams & Gray Elseworlds graphic novel, SON OF SUPERMAN. With typically beautiful art by JH Williams III and Mick Gray, it's also a muted reminder of what made Howard Chaykin a star. His AMERICAN FLAGG! (now finally available again through Dynamic Forces), though history has now bypassed it as it has many near-future sf series, remains interesting not only for its story and art but for its subtler prognostications that have come to pass, such as super-shopping malls becoming the focal points of whole communities. (Howard based his Chicago Plex Mall, sprung up amid what remained of O'Hare Field in the aftermath of national cataclysm, at least in part on the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.)

SON OF SUPERMAN bears some similarities: in a near-future America obsessed with law and order, where Superman disappeared, presumed dead, some 15 years earlier, TV commentators dutifully report as fact whatever the government (presided over by Elizabeth Dole) tells them, industrialists (mainly Lex Luthor) control policy, law is pretty much whatever those in power decide it is, crimes are overlooked on the basis of economic pragmatism, a blonded Lois Lane has abandoned journalism for a lucrative screenwriting career churning out high concept twaddle, and terrorists (in this case, the "Supermen Of America," ostensibly fighting to return economic equity to a society increasingly stratified, as a matter of government policy, into rich and poor) threaten the peace. The book has its flaws - many of the character motivations, particularly the Martian Manhunter's, aren't adequately explained, and the much-mentioned changes in society prompted by Luthor's appropriation and manufacture of Kryptonian technology, are never really shown - but, looking back from the perspective of 2004, it demonstrates an eerie prescience on a number of levels. Perhaps the most striking moment in the book, in retrospect, is a terrorist attack (supposedly led by the resurrected Superman, but it's a frame) on a New York City landmark, destroying the Statue Of Liberty (and all the civilians visiting it) as a symbol of what America has become. Not quite the World Trade Center, but not far removed.

Throw in a couple subtle digs as the blind focus on "law and order" that traditionally underpins the superhero mythos, and the graphic novel's very lively and readable with entertaining extrapolation of some interesting ideas, but, no, it's still not great.

But it's a solid reminder of why Howard Chaykin is, and why it'd be nice to see some company once again just pay him well (then get out of the way) to let fly the vision he's more than capable of.

It is a risk, as various talents have demonstrated time and time again. Someone gains a name for themselves writing or drawing, oh, DAREDEVIL or SPIDER-MAN, and, suddenly, there they are, off resuscitating Batman or forming their own company. And if characters are popular enough, you can get away with throwing pretty much anyone who comes along at them - but you can only get away with it for a little while, unless there's some brilliant unifying imagination underlying the whole thing. The "brilliant unifying imagination" is one of the big myths, or big lies, of comics of the last thirty years or so; everyone thinks they're "the brilliant unifying imagination," of course - and, bloody hell, I mean everyone - but nobody figures out in advance that the position, even if you've got the stuff to fill it (and almost nobody does), is really just a stump in middle management hell. It's a management job: deadlines and paperwork. Keeping track. Meetings. Making sure the proxies you've got lined up to be your little robotic hands to write and draw the stuff don't get all uppity and have ideas of their own, or just not carry out your ideas the way you see them. Think it's fun? Ask Mark Alessi. Then start wondering how long it would take you, trying to manage a setup like that, to resort to tossing out two second throwaways like "X and Y meet by random chance at a filling station and fight, and throw some character bits in," and respond, when queried for more specifics with, "You'll just have to read my mind on that." So much for brilliant unifying imaginations.

Not that standard editors have it much better, but at least the relative powerlessness of their positions these days in companies increasingly micromanaged from above affords them a little perspective. Still, editors have a tendency to fall into the "if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with" trap; if they can't get the talent that's selling books or garnering reviews, they pimp up the talent they're got as far better than they are. It's basically a shell game that serves no one; short of incredible luck, it always collapses of its own weight sooner or later.

Comics publishers and talent have always had peculiar relationships, but this latest go-round is something new. Over at DC, there's the new "All-Star" line, but that's really nothing new. It's the same original concept as LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT and LEGENDS OF THE DC UNIVERSE: set Top Talents "loose" on finite non-continuity bursts on Top Characters. It's been tried before, by other companies as well, and it's a good idea, in theory. Until it hits, as it inevitably seems to, the schedules of "in-demand" talents, or sales pressures to produce more than can be produced, or sales pressures to produce at all, or various in-house myopias, until it's just another line of comics populated by whatever talent manages to be available by press time, just like every other line of comics. It'll be interesting to see if "All-Stars," with names like Jim Lee and Grant Morrison attached to its launch, can beat the odds and pull it off in the long run. We probably have a year and a half, at least, of sticking to the formula, though.

No, the thing that's weird these days is all the exclusive contracts being cut. Exclusives are nothing new to the business either, and these days, when talent poaching between companies seems at an all-time high (though that's deceptive, the perception exacerbated by an endless barrage of Internet press releases; most people stay put), it makes some sense. What's unusual about this go-round is who's being signed. Traditionally, companies went after talent who'd shown sales muscle, or, as mentioned above, had a reputation for getting attention regardless of overall sales (companies like attention). The array of talents offered exclusive deals lately, though, has been... well, baffling, particularly at Marvel. I'm not saying any of the talents involved don't deserve contracts - they're all talented guys, even if most as unrecognized by the market and rarely mentioned by the press - it's just hard to figure out what Marvel gets from it, aside from a guaranteed pool of warm bodies to make sure books come out on time. Or maybe they're planning to make them into the next generation of stars. (Companies have tried to do weirder things, though most of the top talents in comics are chosen by the audience and not promoted to them, which is why no one can guess who's going to end up a "top talent" and who isn't, why some basically untalented people have made it to those rarified heights, and why some incredibly talented people have never reached market critical mass. So "creating" stars is usually an egotistical, delusional practice.) Whatever Marvel's up to - it's always possible they've just decided exclusive contracts are the way to go, so that's the way they're going - it's both a godsend to talent in these financially very uncertain times for the industry, and another nail in the coffin of cross-pollination of ideas between companies. The easy transit of freelancers from one company to another has always been a pain for comics companies, but it has always generated energy and opportunities for the industry. Locking up talent is also locking out talent, and somewhere out there there are imaginations that can bounce comics to new heights. This isn't the time for any more doors to close than absolutely necessary.

  • This week's TWO HEADS TALK is brought to you courtesy of Ilias Kyriazis. Art ©™2004 Ilias Kyriazis. Thanks, Ilias!

    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?

  • No politics to speak of this week, but go find a copy of THE BUSH JUNTA, edited by Mack White and Gary Groth (Fantagraphics Books; $18.95), a spectacular, hilarious and horrifying critique of the current administration and its origins and practices by a couple dozen cartoonists from Ted Rall to Peter Kuper following in the footsteps of Thomas Nast. Underground comix live, they're just mistaken for graphic novels these days. Really good, and saying pretty much everything I would this week. Get it.
  • I don't usually do top 10 lists, but damn if there weren't ten TV shows worth watching this year. In order:

    1) DEADWOOD (HBO). An unexpected western, filled with the sour milk of human foible, terrific writing, and sensational performances.

    2) THE WIRE (HBO). The best crime show on TV in a long time, the third season finally overcame the few fumbles and false steps of the first two seasons, as very human cops struggle against obstacles within and without to unseat a drug kingpin. A compelling view of politics, police work and the streets in a decaying city.

    3) AMAZING RACE (CBS). Teams of two race around the world, solving clues, meeting challenges and contending with trains, planes and automobiles, in the simplest yet most entertaining reality show ever. It's a pressure cooker, but the point isn't humiliation but victory. Great concept, great execution.

    4) THE SHIELD (FX). Like THE WIRE, this one also took until season three to really percolate, as a team of crooked but occasionally noble cops play the system, and play bad guys against the system, to line their pockets and make their jobs easier. Except it never quite does, and the nearly flawless third season saw them fraying dangerously as the emotional damage mounted, making anything possible.

    5) ENTOURAGE (HBO). Now this is the Hollywood I recognize, not to mention Jeremy Piven's finally got a role he can really play to the hilt.

    6) THE O.C. (Fox). The first comedy-soap opera (no, I'm not forgetting SOAP) that works on both levels, aided by the best network dialogue on TV and loads of characters (though it can't be said for all of them) who aren't stupid. It's the best hour of pure throwaway entertainment on the tube.

    7) WAKING THE DEAD (BBC America). From England, the best forensics cop show on the air, as a crack squad of muckrakers unearth and solve dead cases. The cases are mostly fascinating, but it's the interplay of the characters and dialogue that always actually sounds like people talking that makes the show.

    8) VERONICA MARS (UPN). An unexpected gem, either a teen soap with crime elements or a crime show with teen soap elements, it's played with wit and style as former it girl turned high school outcast Mars helps her ex-cop/P.I. dad solve cases while turning her new skills toward helping out/nailing classmates and trying to unearth the secrets of her mother's disappearance, her best friend's murder and her own possibly tenuous parentage. It's rare a show can be so sunny in one breath and so dark in the next.

    9) DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES (ABC). The second comedy-soap. The banter's less great than on THE O.C., and the storyline's more soap formulaic, but it delights in setting up familiar formulae then twisting them completely out of shape and navigating the plot points like a screwball comedy, carried off terrifically by the actresses, who get some great lines along the way.

    10) 24 (Fox). Sure, it's a mess, but it's a mess that always pays off, a wild rollercoaster ride all the more frightening and thrilling because you can actually see them still building it as you rocket forward. Keifer Sutherland's secret agent Jack Bauer is a bundle of incoherent traumas, and thought it sometimes takes awhile for him to get around to the deadly work of mutilating a bad guy, executing one of his superiors or cutting his partner's arm off, it always feels like we've hit the, uh, jackpot when he does. It may not be brilliant, but it's got ten times the energy of any other show on TV.

  • Well, so much for 2004. Frankly, I could have lived without it. On to 2005, and better times.

    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.

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