Spotlights swoop across the sky every night now, in erratic, repetitive dance, without apparent source. Maybe they were always there, before the sheet of clouds made them easy to spot. There were never clouds in the night sky before.
Each time the policeman next door sits in his pool and tells his wife of all his lost opportunities and everything he hasn’t got, I hear in his voice, drifting through my open window on the night air, the cocking of a .38 yet unfired. The papers are littered with stories of murder-suicides of men who choose to snuff it and take their families with them, like pharaohs. But the constant presence of a police car on a street outside is comforting.
14 year old girls now stalk businessmen on subways, pursuing the same targets, always strangers, daily for weeks, lifting “souvenirs” until discovered or the target disappears. Participants collect souvenirs until a picture of the target’s life can be formed. Girls clubs assess the stories and rewrite them if necessary, and psychologists and police have found the target’s life will begin to align with the alternative scenario invented for them, with targets often succumbing to depression or mental illness though they’re rarely aware of their stalkers. Whether the stalkings are a local phenomenon or have spread regionally or nationally is unclear.
Will Eisner died last night. Funny what goes through your head when you hear things like that. Eisner hit me out of the blue in ’66, in an Osco Drug in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where I was because, for some reason, my mother wanted to visit the Prange’s Department Store there. Like every kid, I loathed department stores – they had departments for everything but what I was interested in – and I skipped out to the Osco across the street to loiter at the magazine racks. What caught my eye was Harvey Comics’ THE SPIRIT #1. At that point I’d grown up on DC and Marvel, with smatterings of the other companies floating around at the time: ACG, Tower, Radio/Mighty/Archie. Occasionally Dell or Gold Key. Never Harvey. It just wasn’t a company that put out anything interesting. (Meaning, of course, action/adventure, or sophomoric, as opposed to juvenile, humor.) To find something like THE SPIRIT from Harvey… Actually, I thought it looked crappy. Cartoony. Some idiot’s idea of a superhero comic. But there was nothing else in that Osco to read, and, in downtown Green Bay in 1966, nowhere else to go. So I read it. It was quite a shock, so unique in story and style and so adventurous in design – Steranko’s first Marvel work hadn’t debuted at that point, and his bolder graphic experiments, some based directly on Eisner, were months off – that it recast on the spot my whole concept of what comics could be. (Oddly, I remember the main thing that struck me about the book’s original story was it was the first time I’d ever seen nipples drawn on a bare-chested guy in comics; it just wasn’t the sort of thing comics acknowledged.) I didn’t even guess most of the material came from 1947-1949, since the art was slicker than most of what was being published even in the ’60s. If I’d known – if I’d had much concept of ’40s art at all in those days – I’d have gone into fits, since the Eisner product was miles beyond anything else done in the ’40s. I didn’t need to know. What I knew was enough. I wanted it. I wanted it bad. But kids in those days didn’t have money, unless it was right after your birthday or Christmas, or you’d just visited your grandparents, and I couldn’t admit to my parents I’d left a store to go walking around a strange city by myself. I left it (and a couple clerks keeping a very close eye on me) behind, figuring I’d get it when I got home.
Curiously, while CASPER THE FRIENDLY GHOST and LI’L DOT got distributed in Madison, Harvey’s short-lived action line (which had material ranging from the ghastly to the incredible) wasn’t distributed there. Then I found Jules Feiffer’s hardcover, THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES, at the local library, which included an early ’40s (and, to my young eyes, stylistically inferior if as adventurous in design) SPIRIT strip and a glowing paean to Will, the first of its sort that I’m aware of. It was years before I finally got the issue, and the subsequent, final one, and by then I was just finishing high school and collecting Eisner material, including about 50 SPIRIT SECTIONS, the large ones published in the late ’40s that were the size of a regular newspaper comics section rather than the traditional comic book size the section ran in. At that time, before I was really aware Eisner really produced the strip via a studio full of assistants that included Jules Feiffer, Jerry Grandenetti and Wally Wood, I was convinced Eisner was the greatest comics artist of all time. I’d have the discussion with friends stuck on Kirby (whose work I’d never really warmed to): didn’t even Kirby come out of Eisner’s early studio?
Shortly after high school, I met Denis Kitchen, then operating out of Milwaukee, and Denis, a longtime comics buff and Ernie Bushmiller fan publishing underground comix but having a different sensibility from the other major underground publishers based around San Francisco, ushered in the official New Era Of Will Eisner with his own two issues of THE SPIRIT, published in black and white. By then I was deep into underground comix as well, and the publication seemed a personal vindication and confluence of my own rarified (by the standards of the day) tastes. Previously relegated only to fanzines and the occasional few pages of THE NEW YORK TIMES SUNDAY MAGAZINE, it was obvious Eisner was going to take his rightful place at the head of the pantheon of comics creators. Didn’t happen, at least not then. Despite constant praise for Eisner in knowledgeable fanzines, he remained a minor figure as far as most comics fans were concerned. THE SPIRIT moved to Warren Publications for 16 black and white reprint magazine issues after Denis’ dabbling, but it was an uncomfortable fit with Warren’s more sensationalistic horror comics magazines and never a big seller, and reverted to Kitchen Sink Press afterward for another 25 issues, kept going by Denis mainly as a labor of love. Part of the problem was a growing mood of the time in comics fandom that has never really dissipated since, fed by a growing mood of experimentation and innovation among young comics talent inflamed in the early ’70s by Neal Adams, Jim Steranko and the racy, topical underground comix: a dismissal of earlier comics works as automatically inferior to modern work. Whatever quality Eisner’s work had, it didn’t look like Jim Starlin’s, and the instant the 1940s were brought into it, general interest plummeted. Worse, the magazine gave Will a forum for experimental new works, but his style was much looser and more personal than the slicker SPIRIT material, and no one could know then he was building a new market that wouldn’t really materialize for another 15 or so years. His new style turned out to be prescient, but in the day it was hard to argue that Eisner hadn’t simply lost it. Which many did.
But y’know who really put Will over the top? Frank Miller, at the height of his popularity, when he cited Eisner as a major influence on his own approach to comics. His willingness to discuss the Eisner influence gave Will a new patina of relevance for many readers; hey, if even Frank Miller was citing his greatness, he was worth looking into. (Let me clarify, for those who think I’m ragging on Will here: Frank didn’t make Will’s work worth looking into. It always was. Frank made it cool to look into Will’s work, or at least to cite Eisner as an influence.) After that, it was hard to turn over a rock or open a soda without Eisner’s name popping up. Which was okay. He deserved it.
So Will died at 87, after complications of heart surgery. Sad, but 87’s a good long run, and Eisner did more with those 87 years than any score of us put together. Certainly he’s destined to remain an artistic influence, though there’s a downside to that: at this point, the “Spirit” style is finally so integrated in our common language that its innovations are now clichés, which is the fate of all really influential innovations. (Just ask Neal Adams.) Eisner was right to step away from that style; whatever was left to be done with it would be done by hordes of imitators and offshoots. He had already mined that claim; others could only tap it dry.
But Eisner was always something of a chameleon. I remember in one of the first interviews done with him in the late ’60s he, who came of age in the great depression, said “business acumen comes from hunger.” And I think that’s the key to Eisner. He saw markets coming. He wasn’t always dead on: his own comics company of the late ’40s, though it had excellent product like BASEBALL COMICS, only published two comics before folding, crushed by lousy distribution and postwar market shrinkage in the midst of product glut from a horde of competitors (kinda sounds like today, don’t it?) and that probably dissuaded Eisner from what was essentially self-publishing. But look at what he did: he was the first, or one of the first, to realize publishers would be hungry for new product, and he and then-partner Jerry Iger founded what’s commonly considered the first “shop” to pump out material. (Never mind that the term was essentially an abbreviation for “sweatshop”; both Eisner and his employees were just glad to have the work. I’ve always found it interesting, though, that the man widely acknowledged as the first great creative genius of American comic books patterned his business after garment industry factories where most hands were substantially interchangeable.) He was among the first, possibly the first, to break away from comic strips as the model for comic book design and start looking at movies and other media/art like Lynn Ward’s woodcut novels for inspiration. When commercial comics petered out in the early ’50s, he pioneered comics as an educational tool, developing P.S. MAGAZINE to teach Army recruits safety techniques. Even when doing his later “experimental” work, he was obviously eyeing the birth of the graphic novel as a vehicle for “mainstream” (mainstream mainstream, not comics mainstream) fiction, and while I don’t think it’s fair to a great many others to name Eisner “the father of the graphic novel,” he was clearly preparing well in advance for when such a thing was possible, and he may have been the first to secure a contract with a “legitimate” book publisher to produce them. That’s not even counting the horde of characters he created or co-created, like Blackhawk or Sheena of the Jungle. Hell, he was even the first to create a character sued for being a Superman knockoff, Fox Publication’s Wonderman (1939). As Jules Feiffer proclaimed in THE GREAT COMIC BOOK ARTISTS, Will was an artist other artists stole from.
And that’s the paradox of Will Eisner. We tend to think of him as an artist or creator, but for most of his career he was more of an impresario. He oversaw other hands working on THE SPIRIT and myriad other features, and there’s no doubt THE SPIRIT in particular reflected exactly what he wanted it to reflect, but to focus on Eisner exclusively is to overlook the important contributions of Grandenetti, Feiffer, Lou Fine, William Woolfolk, Bob Powell and numerous others to the material. Eisner was the impresario, and more than that he was a businessman, and I don’t mean that disparagingly. He understood probably from word go that to be successful as an artist, as a creator, he had to be a businessman equally – a lesson far too few in comics have ever learned. And he knew it both ways: as an artist he had to be a businessman, but as a businessman he had to be an artist. (Which is a lesson most businessmen in this business have never learned either.) Eisner was a visionary in both aspects. And that’s the real lesson of his life: we like to comfort ourselves (especially, it seems, those of us who go without any significant commercial success) that art exists for art’s sake apart from other considerations, but that’s not the way the world works, and that’s not the way Eisner operated. Art exists in its own right, but the function of art in a commercial medium is to generate income, and while Eisner was never a slave to the concept, it’s pretty clear he never let it slip far from his mind either. He was a complex guy, and no doubt by the time this sees the light of day the memoirs, obituaries and tributes will be flowing, but the best way to honor his memory is not to recount his achievements or mimic his work, but to continue his work by doing what he did: he spent his life looking ahead to what was coming, and invented whatever he needed to generate it, or be a part of it.
The big war this year will be over social security, though, as HP reportedly plans to push his grand scheme to privatize the whole schemer. Meaning, basically, encouraging people to gamble on the stock market. Republicans really know how to bear a grudge; they’ve been pissing and moaning about Social Security since its inception. But here’s the thing: Social Security was created to protect Americans from the stock market, following so many of them being financially wiped out when the stock market crashed in 1929. It was intended not to make anyone rich but to guarantee at least some income to citizens in their golden years. The workings of it are fairly simple: we put a small amount of our income into a common pool, and that money accrues interest and pays for our parents’ retirement, while the money our kids put in will pay for ours, etc.
The problem with social security isn’t the system itself (everyone grouses at least a little about putting money in, nobody grouses about taking the payoff) but with the government’s attitude toward it. To the government, it’s not money sitting there waiting to be paid back out, it’s money going to waste. What nobody in the government – and I mean both Republicans and Democrats; professional Republicans seem to have a violent allergic reaction to any money that can’t be invested in the stock market, but it was professional Democrat Lyndon Johnson who thought it’d be a great idea to tap it to help pay for the Vietnam War and other pet projects – can get through their heads is that while the government is the custodian of the fund, it’s not their money! Administrations since Johnson’s, including this one, have made a regular practice of embezzling from the social security fund on the theory that they’ll put it back before anyone notices. So there’s something to be said for protecting social security from the government. But the “private investment” scheme is really a plan to get rid of social security altogether. If people are now allowed to transfer social security input into “private accounts,” the money to pay off those who’ve already paid into social security dries up. Similarly, since playing the complex, unpredictable and fairly easy to manipulate stock market is akin to playing roulette for most small investors, letting funds earmarked for social security go to the stock market instead is tantamount to funneling that money from not-so-rich to rich, raising again the specter of 1929, when whole lives were wiped out. Republicans always talk like the stock market is The Answer, but the stock market has really become the dark face of capitalism, not much more than a pyramid scheme that has to be periodically deflated to continue, and those deflations always result in a handful of usually already rich investors getting much richer while the vast majority of investors get much poorer. Which isn’t to say you can’t win at the stock market; you can win at pretty much any form of gambling, if you’re willing to learn all the rules and pay constant attention. But it’s a lot of work. You can hire a money manager/mutual fund to do the work for you, but that’s money off the top and if they happen to lose all your money for you, well, you’re responsible, not them.
Given continued economic shakiness – an increasingly costly war, new warnings of economic slowdown, continued weakness of the dollar against foreign currencies – it’s understandable why HP wants social security money out floating around the economy. But given those conditions does anyone really want to risk the futures of the next several generations of Americans against another Black Friday?
PROOF OF CONCEPT by Larry Young & various, 136 pg. b&w graphic novel (AiT/PlanetLar Books;$12.95)
Oh, sure, when I said I wanted to do a graphic novel broken up into various sections drawn by various artists, Larry dismissed it as an accounting nightmare, but here’s PROOF OF CONCEPT, an autobiographical anthology written by Larry and drawn by seven different artists. It’s one of those concepts that’s so obvious I kick myself for not having thought of it: Larry and his agent discuss various ideas that might be pitched around Hollywood as potential movies or TV shows, with those ideas fleshed out a little into vignettes by the various artists, including Kieron Dwyer and John Heebink (whose art takes on strong Dave Gibbons overtones here). For what it is, it’s pretty good, a paean to the inspired goofiness Larry can generate. Ideas like zombie dinosaurs and a world of Abraham Lincoln clones. What I found most amusing about the book was how Larry and his agent both spoke about almost all these concepts as things Hollywood would leap at – and who knows? Maybe they would – even as most of the vignettes halt before they can build to anything substantial. The inclusion of various chapters of an abortive image series about an invisible girl becoming a Hollywood star suggest the book came about to make use of that but Larry had to figure out a framework for the non-consecutive chapters, with more material to fill out a book, but the apparent real purpose of the book is so stunningly simple I expect half the comics-creating world to be doing in imminently: everyone in comics is obsessed with these days with selling ideas to Hollywood for the big bucks, but Hollywood isn’t interested in anything that hasn’t already appeared in comics form. So Larry, boy genius that he is, packages a bunch of high concept pitches into a single volume that’s easy to show around and establishes – get this – proof of concept! But that’s just explicating the book; I’m not knocking it. The art’s good, the writing’s good, and, all things considered, it’s a fun little romp.
(ROSCOE) FATTY ARBUCKLE AND HIS FUNNY FRIENDS compiled by Marilyn Slater, 32 pg. b&w magazine (Fantagraphics Books;$4.95)
Weird stuff. Fatty Arbuckle was a huge (physically and in popularity) silent era film comic whose career was brought down by Hollywood’s moral watchdogs the Hays Committee following a scandal of which Arbuckle was ultimately acquitted, and he was mostly forgotten until resurrected by Ken Anger in the notorious HOLLYWOOD BABYLON. But in the early ’20s, Arbuckle was also the star of the English “Kinema Comic,” which did comic strips approximating one and two reel Hollywood comedies, featuring the popular stars of the day. This volume collects “The Playful Pranks of Fattle Arbuckle,” and it’s pretty interesting for historical value and funny in its own right. Worth a look for that and for a glimpse of the mores and storytelling style of the day.
BELLY BUTTON COMIX #2 by Sophie, 32 pg. b&w comic (Fantagraphics Books;$4.95)
The problem with most autobiographical comics is the (mostly young) creators have never really done much, but, man, Sophie sure can’t be accused of that. Though, on the surface, her romp through various travels, drug escapades, weird dreams, bad boyfriends and bad life choices doesn’t sound like a million other autobiographical comics, Sophie’s approach (aided considerably by a notable mastery of craft) is focused and unsentimental; she doesn’t glamorize or ennoble her experiences, just relates them with good humor and a natural storytelling skill. I’d say it’s better than most autobiographical comics, which is true, but it stands well alongside far more than that genre.
KRAZY AND IGNATZ: THE COMPLETE FULL PAGE COMIC STRIPS 1933-1934 by George Herriman, 112 pg. b&w book (Fantagraphics Books;$14.95)
Thank god for Fantagraphics’ fixation on preserving historical material. This latest collection of Herriman’s pivotal, whimsical, surreal KRAZY KAT, regarded by many connoisseurs as the best comic strip ever, collects two years worth of Sunday strips, along with rare ancillary material about Herriman and the strip. What can I say? Editors Bill Blackbeard and Derya Ataker have rescued terrific work from obscurity and the butchery of its original editors, and it’s amazing stuff from Herriman at the height of his talents. If you have any real love for comics or comic strips, you’ll hunt down the Fantagraphics Herriman collections right now, starting with this one.
HANGING OUT WITH THE DREAM KING: CONVERSATIONS WITH NEIL GAIMAN AND HIS COLLABORATORS by Joseph McCabe, 298 pg. prose trade paperback (Fantagraphics Books;$17.95)
Wow. Now this is obsession. Two interviews with Neil and 27 with his editors, artists, co-writers and sundry others, tracing the development of mostly SANDMAN but also things like GOOD OMENS, THE LAST TEMPTATION and 1602. McCabe’s interviews get a bit repetitive – by the time the eighth artist describes how Neil puts everything he’s looking for in the script, you get the idea that Neil puts everything he’s looking for in the script – there’s a smidge too much emphasis on illuminations of the creative process that rarely manage to materialize (on a practical level, making a comic book usually isn’t a mystical experience, it’s just work and there’s not really a lot more to be said about it than that), and the interviews are too short to provide any great depth into any subject – but gradually it all works nicely together to form a mosaic that both reaffirms Neil’s public image and undermines it. And the interviews are quite readable, whatever their flaws. Lots of nice illustrations too, well presented. It’s probably not a great book for casual readers, but Gaiman or SANDMAN fanatics will be in hog heaven.
DEVASTATOR: a screenplay by James Hudnall based on his comic book, 144 pg. prose paperback (Black Coat Press;$15.95)
A few years ago, Larry Young approached me about a screenplay I’d written adapting my crime mini-series, BADLANDS. Larry had this notion of starting a library of unproduced screenplays by comics writers. He had a few lined up, but, for various reasons, BADLANDS ended up the only one published, and no line materialized. Lo and behold, here’s Black Coat with a line of unproduced screenplays by the Lofficiers, Mike Baron, Will Shetterly & Emma Bull, Steve Englehart, Andrew Paquette, and now James Hudnall, who does a good job of turning his little-known comics series into a pretty good script for an action film. There are occasional flubs – early exposition is a bit forced, and having characters say things like “chop sockey dude” yanks us right out of the action, but by and large Hudnall’s writing is lean and tight, and the action flows well. Then again, I like reading screenplays, esp. ones you can see in your head. Good job.
Six books and they’re all enjoyable. Not bad for the first week of the year.
I hate DC this week, because I read the hardcover of Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso’s BATMAN: BROKEN CITY. Not that I disliked the book; I’m a big fan of Brian’s work, particularly when Risso’s illustrating. Sure, I figured out the big twist about as soon as the main participant showed up (I’m trying to avoid any spoilers), but that’s sort of my job so I can’t count that as too much of a flaw. I’m not peeved at Brian or the story at all, matter of fact. But Batman as a character never really made much sense to me. No character driven by revenge really makes much sense to me, unless they’re as psychologically damaged as, say, The Punisher. Revenge is a short-term emotion, hard to sustain over time unless there’s a social structure promoting it. That wasn’t Batman. (Sure, there’s that selfless “protect the innocent” side, but underneath it all is the urge to vengeance for his parents’ deaths.) So somewhere along the line I decided to figure out how to make Batman make sense. Turned out to be ridiculously easy. My rationale: it wasn’t revenge that motivated Batman, it was guilt. I forget the exact scenario, but it required a little background to that ill-fated trip to the movies, involving the very young Bruce Wayne becoming so angry with his parents that he, for an instant, wished them dead, as all kids do of their parents at some point or another. A fleeting thing he didn’t even mean, but, bang, there they are dead. It wouldn’t even necessarily have been something the adult Bruce would articulate, but the six year old in him would always see a cause and effect, giving Batman a psychologically tragic edge to go along with his tragic origin: his mission to find his parents’ killer would never end because ultimately he held himself responsible, and that’s the one person he could never bring to justice. The Batman identity becomes a penance thing as well, a means of expiating his unvoiced guilt that will never die until he does.
Which, to all intents and purposes, is what Brian does in BROKEN CITY. I wanted to do that story. I wasn’t in a position when I came up with it to pitch it to DC. When I was, years later, the comment I got back was, “Batman isn’t crazy.” I didn’t remember ever indicating he was. But the translation was obvious: no. Couldn’t do the story. And now there it is. I like what Brian did, but I wanted to do that story. That’s why I’m a bit peeved this week. It’ll pass.
On another note, if comics companies are determined to put top talent on existing company-owned properties, why put them on X-Men or Batman or Spider-Man or Superman? Isn’t that gilding the lily, esp. when most such properties usually amount to creative straitjackets? Or is it to assure them royalties? (Except with Superman, of course.) Why not give them the pick of failed company-owned concepts and let them run free with their choice? Let creators be, you know, creative?
Because you don’t have enough projects on your plate right now: how to make a motorcycle computer. Get your wireless humming, head out on the highway…
Because you don’t have enough to read right now: a dissection of the work of manga artist Naoki Urusawa.
I recently switched my e-mail program to Mozilla’s Thunderbird, which also features a DSS reader (making it easier to follow the recent mutations in Warren Ellis’ online presence among other things) and a newsreader for Usenet newsgroups. I hadn’t been on any in a few years; Usenet groups really are the Internet’s vestigial tail, aren’t they? Aside from bootlegging media and porn, they seem to have been pretty much abandoned. Anyone here still pursue any comics interests via Usenet?
The annual Consumer Electronics Show hits town this week, so I should have a report next week on whatever wonderful new electronic/cyberjunk will be popping up to command your attention and cash over the next year.
This year’s already an improvement over the last (knock wood), with stalled projects becoming unstalled – the Vivid comics from Avatar are reportedly finally going to print (they’d been held up while distribution was being nailed down) – and FRANK MILLER’S ROBOCOP is finally about to wind up, while the first issue of my ROBOCOP: WAR PARTY mini-series should be on sale any second now, while I’m just finishing the first issue of the subsequent mini, ROBOCOP: NEW FRONTIER JUSTICE. Plus a prose fiction commitment, discussions toward a graphic novel from an unexpected source, other things, it’s threatening to be a busy year. Which is how I like it. Among other things, I’ll probably be discontinuing TWO HEADS TALK when I burn off the existing stock of heads. It was fun for awhile, but now it’s time to come up with something else.
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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