After hitting CES for four years running, I've noticed they always tout it as the unveiling place for bold new breakthrough technologies. But it never really is. Mainly because CES focuses mainly on consumer electronics (including business), and despite the popular image of "consumers" rabid to be the first on their blocks to be able to show off the latest tech, regardless of cost (or, let's face it, in most cases usefulness), most consumers, as much as they might want a 50" high resolution TV thin and light enough to hang on the wall, most aren't willing to shell out $15,000+ on one. CES is mostly about consolidation - which is why the big news isn't so much how hot the new tech is but how low the prices on existing hot tech has dropped. (You can now get those $15,000 plasma screens, two years after introduction, for around $3500.) The innovations on display were mostly improvements on existing technology, making it cheaper and more functional. Creative, leaders in computer audio, positioned their new Zen MP3 player - about the size of half a deck of playing cards, with incredible sound - as an iPod killer (being cheaper and easier to work than an iPod) and pimped it hard, to the virtual exclusion of their myriad other products. (One exception was a PCMCIA soundcard for notebook computers that produced equally phenomenal sound and improved notebook performance by taking the audio load off the CPU.) SanDisk, taking a tip from thumbdrives, introduced a terrific new one gig flash card, the type used to add static memory to digital cameras and such, with a built in USB connection for cableless downloading of pictures and other files to computer. Meanwhile, thumbdrives, car key sized static memory chips that hotplug into computers to function as temporary drives which make data transfer easy, and which were the hot CES item two years ago, were nowhere to be seen; now risen to capacities in excess of 1 gig with prices dropped to dirt cheap (two years ago, a 256k thumb drive cost over $100; 1 gig thumb drives now routinely sell for under $70) and facing stiff competition with new portable drives featuring thin 1" hard drives capable of storing up to 4 gigs, they're no longer tech worth spending money to promote. Curiously, security tech, all the rage in the wake of 9-11, was mostly absent from the show, really only surfacing in the "total home" areas, which mostly focused on wireless connectivity of the home to turn it into a huge entertainment center. Similarly, biometrics - thumbprint/voice/retina/etc. recognition systems for business/home security - seems to have gone by the boards as a consumer item.
For manufacturers, the big problem with most tech is there's only so far you can take it. Most, desperate for markets to make the tech profitable, try to overapply it, and the tech that finds a market ends up dropping in price, often precipitously. And most tech reaches saturation; this is what drives cellphone makers to constantly add features, trying to turn a telephone into an all-around portable entertainment/communications center, so there won't be one single moment in your life where you have to feel "disconnected" (or, not coincidentally, not using their product). Walking through CES' cellphone area is a bit scary, though trying to read internet feeds on a .5" screen is even scarier, and it's always mildly entertaining to get stopped by a salesperson trying to pimp instant messaging/gameplaying/satellite radio connectivity/digital camera/whatever and watching the baby doe panic in their eyes when you tell them you only need a phone for phone calls. (Extra points for telling them you only have a cellphone for use in emergencies.) Cell phone manufacturers know cellphones that only make phone calls have hit total market saturation, and, unless you have one in your pocket while sitting in the front row for the whale show at SeaWorld, they're virtually immortal for market purposes - which means the first sale they make is the last sale, unless they can convince you that you now need a better phone, one that can do all sorts of things that have nothing at all to do with phone calls. The collision course now is with Personal Digital Assitants (PDAs), and which product, the PDA or the multitasking cellphone, will totally absorb the other first. If Palm, the biggest manufacturer of PDAs, is anywhere near accurate in their presentation, odds are the PDA will be the eventual winner. Microsoft, meanwhile, is pushing the SmartWatch, a Dick Tracy item that connects to the MSN internet service to bring you weather, news, e-mail, and other news/entertainment features as well as allowing some PDA-type functions, and that could threaten both PDAs and cellphones in the future - if the watches take off. I see a couple problems with them. Don't know about you but I tend to smack the hell out of my watch just maneuvering through life; those things better be damn shockproof. And Microsoft has tied them to a subscription model - above the fairly expensive cost of the watches, there's the fairly hefty monthly MSN connection fee. Will people treat a watch the same way they treat cable or satellite TV? Meanwhile, computer manufacturers, their own native markets pretty much already saturated (businesses are consistently less interested in replacing perfectly functional systems with the latest tech, while the gamers willing to shell out a few grand every few months to stay on top of the hottest tech are a dying breed), continue to try to turn the computer into a living room entertainment appliance that replaces or works with stereo systems, TV sets, gaming systems etc.
Other cool CES items: the "wireless house," scattering cordless speakers into every room, with an MP3/WMA capable receiver remotely controllable from anywhere in the house. If you're very rich and very obsessive, you can now buy a 102" plasma screen TV. DVD-writers are on their way (they're already here, but I mean much lower cost ones) that will laser print labels right onto the DVDs as they're recorded, meaning virtually anyone will be able to produce professional quality DVDs, at least in appearance. (Which may explain Microsoft's near-total lack of focus on their floundering X-Box gaming system, though I don't recall seeing much involving Sony's Playstation 2 or Nintendo's Gamecube or Gameboys either.)
The three lessons of CES: any technology good enough to be useful will drop significantly in price in a couple of years; the technology you're currently using is most likely good enough to last you those couple of years or beyond; and there are an awful lot of companies willing to give away an awful lot of stuff to entice people to forget the first two lessons.
And the dwindling sense of "it's new, it's cool, I must have it" in the zeitgeist out there may have repercussions for the comics market as well. Tech companies are clearly desperately scrambling for the new "killer app," that one product/technology/system that is just so cool and so appealing that everyone's driven to want a piece of it. We need a new killer app too...
Not that I hold up, er... what are they called again? Oh yeah - "mainstream comics." Not that I hold up mainstream comics, or indies, as superior choices. So many sub-categories, so much crap. Beau Smith, in his column this week, digs into this a little, with the following admonition (amid several) for 2005:
"Sales in comics are not what ya think. Don't believe the hype. Sure they're better than they were four years ago, but four years ago the hole was crater deep. Remember just how deep a hole that is. The sales of the top 20 comics have improved, but we are nowhere close to getting' out of the hole yet."
Beau also makes a couple of statements that reiterate what I've read many other places on the web in recent months:
"Art in comics right now is better than it has ever been.
"Comic book writing is levels better than it was in the 90s."
And both of those are sort of true. But only sort of.
The best art in comics right now is better than it ever has been.
The best comic book writing now is levels better than it was in the '90s.
But a lot of it is still pretty damn crappy.
Fact is that "quality," an amorphous word open to convenient interpretation if there ever was one, has never been a terribly significant factor in pop culture. Some incredibly crappy, trashy products have become huge pop culture successes.That's just the way it is, a side effect of a general democratization of the arts that has been going on for the last couple centuries, not that various elites and aspiring or self-imagined elites of many strips have ever stopped trying to claim the title of "art." Quality's something no one can really prove works for you as much as lacking quality is usually asserted to work against you, though that's also a tenuous at best proposition. In our context, this puts "art comics" in a real trap that doesn't much affect other kinds of comics.
It comes down to this: nobody actually expects genre comics - you know, superheroes, science fiction, horror, etc. - to be any good. The comics market certainly doesn't; that's why we make so many allowances for them. Most of them, like most genre fiction in any medium, aren't actually there to be good or not good. They're there to punch the right buttons, and when they punch those buttons, or don't punch them in really clever ways that manage to shift our expectations, we purr like old cats getting tummy rubs. It's the nature of the beast, it's what keeps Marvel readers reading Marvel comics. It's what keeps people going to James Bond films, or reading John Grisham novels, or watching LAW AND ORDER.
Tell people WATCHMEN is a great comic book, and they'll put it in the context of "greatness" as it applies to comic books. Like I said, nobody expects comic books to actually be great, so when one even marginally comes close it's enough of a shock to exponentially increase the overall impressiveness. And it's also not like anyone, reading, say, a superhero comic that's truly great, automatically expects other superhero comics to equal it. What's great in genre comics is great in the context of a vast field of crap, and pretty much everybody, even people with no interest in or familiarity with comics at all, comprehends that.
"Art comics," though, man, they've got art right there in the name. Art comics publishers start out in a bind; they have to publish enough to make publishing profitable. But, in the immortal words of Raymond Chandler, there's no such thing as good art or bad art, there's only art, and precious little of it. The amount of stuff out there that genuinely qualifies as "art" (and you can trust me to judge such things, wink wink; I may not know what I like, but I know what art is...) is scant enough that publishers automatically start to make little concessions, just to produce enough product to create a market presence, which is standard comics publishing philosophy. Then they start issuing press releases that sound like they're trying to write the reviews themselves, and before too long you end up with publishers that come across as con men because they're selling snake oil and claiming (or, to be fair, in many cases believing, which is worse) it's the elixir of the gods. The trap is this: any outside audience coming to, say, superhero comics and ending up with crappy superhero comics is no longer all that likely to dismiss comics in general, or the potential of the medium, out of hand. They'll just assume they've read a crappy superhero comic. "Art comics," though, they read crappy "art comics," which, in theory, are supposed to demonstrate the medium's full potential, and the reaction is, wow, in comics crap's about as good as it gets. Considering for many people, "art comic" is probably about as enticing as "art film" is, and that's a real marketing nightmare.
Still, any possible "cure" for "art comics" applies to comics across the board. I keep hearing people suggest that the main problem with comics are bad marketing and inadequate distribution, and, yeah, those are big problems. But the biggest problem for comics is also the oldest: before we try to market and distribute, it would help to have something better to market and distribute. And that demands we come to some sort of considered and dispassionate consensus about what constitutes "better," which perhaps should be the industry's main concern in 2005...
HERO SQUARED X-TRA SIZED SPECIAL #1 by Keith Giffen, JM DeMatteis & Joe Abraham; 32 pg. color comic (Atomeka Press;$3.99)
Giffen's career from AMBUSH BUG on is littered with enough parodies and mockeries of superhero comics that it's hard to tell whether he hates superheroes or is simply frustrated with the limitations commonly placed on a genre he loves. His apotheosis was probably on the early '90s hit version of JUSTICE LEAGUE AMERICA, also done with DeMatteis, which ruptured one superhero sacred cow after another - but in, you know, kind of a cuddly way. An impressive juggling act. HERO SQUARED basically covers more of the same ground, ripping through a number of gimmicks now very familiar in superhero comics: the "Superman" of an alternate earth, Captain Valor, escapes the wreckage of his homeworld (after comforting a dying Batman pastiche, something that somehow now resonates more of THE AUTHORITY than WORLDS FINEST COMICS) for the safety of "our" world where he hopes to enlist his counterpart in the fight against apocalyptically cosmic menace Caliginous. (Still with me?) Unfortunately, his counterpart is a very un-powered slacker with only well-buried moral fiber, contrasting drastically with the boy scoutish hero. Needless to say, hilarity ensues. It's a stumper: I kind of like this and I kind of don't. The wit and repartee that characterized the best of JUSTICE LEAGUE AMERICA has disintegrated (in part; some of it's quite good) into mere repetition of the kind that drove me nuts watching SPORTS NIGHT. When they finally shut up and get some action going, the action's good. The art's pretty decent, the coloring is fine. But the book suffers from Giffen & DeMatteis' style having been incorporated over the years into many superhero comics, diluting its effectiveness in a plot, far more standard (read: familiar) superhero material than their wacky best, that already dilutes it. (It doesn't help that any superhero comics fan born after 1980 will have the shock surprise ending figured out around, oh, page 21.) Don't get me wrong - I like this comic - but what's best about it is the potential written between the lines, and it's hard to push something on the basis of potential. It goes onto the "waiting to see what comes next" list, unfortunately...
IT'S A BIRD... by Steven T. Seagle & Teddy Kristiansen, 132 pg. hardbound color graphic novel (Vertigo;$24.95)
For some reason I've never cared for Seagle's work, though it's been so long since I've read any I couldn't say why now. It's not that he's a bad writer, it just never connected. But IT'S A BIRD... is one of the most interesting things DC has ever put out: autobiographical fiction centering on a writer being offered a gig on SUPERMAN, which causes him to struggle with secret issues in his own life. Seagle's script here is sharp and aware, as he outlines the various reasons for his inability to make sense of the character and his reticence to approach it, and delves into the meanings and interpretations of the Superman myth (a symbolist dissection of the colors of his costume is particularly amusing and effective) and into the "secret identities" that most people carry with them, epitomized by the unspoken genetic disease that binds the writer's family together and tears it apart. Kristiansen's impressionistic art has never been sharper or more effective, the many Superman variations giving him the opportunity to work in numerous modes, and the coloring is spectacular, perfect. It's a strong and mature work, marred only by one failing: while "the writer" comes to finally understand the significance of Superman in his life, the story jumps right over any real rapprochement with the character and doesn't even begin to suggest what direction "the writer" will take with the character or how the insights presented in the novel will inform it, since the insights gleaned are mostly negative. That aside, the novel is excellent.
LOVE AND ROCKETS #12 by Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez; 32 pg. b&w comic (Fantagraphics;$4.50)
It's to the point where there's really nothing left to say about the Hernandez Bros. aside from reiterating praise. What continues to stand out about their work, aside from sharp writing and expressive art, is how their characters clearly exist in definable environments (as opposed to most comics characters, for whom locale means little more than background art) that give the stories an almost palpable reality, and how the stories, particularly in LOVE AND ROCKETS, present mostly as funny "Archie Comics grown up" slices of life but eventually accumulate into lives, a style that's at once episodic and novelistic in the best sense of those words. Even in the wackier and more surreal moments, the characters and stories are anchored by well-integrated and gentle psychological and emotional realism. LOVE AND ROCKETS continues o be an outstanding achievement that possibly won't become apparent until you've read enough of them. But check this issue to see how it's done.
Also interesting is an article by Robert Scheer in Tuesday's Los Angeles Times about a 3 hour, apparently very well researched documentary recently run by the BBC that makes the case that al-Qaeda, heinous perpetrators of 9-11 and numerous other terrorists attacks, is nothing more than a boogeyman, a convenient figment of fevered imaginations. The administration has claimed much for al-Qaeda, including high-tech Afghan caves that were later proven to have never existed, but who has ever been tried and convicted as an al-Qaeda operative? Basically, the documentary argues that, yeah, Osama bin Laden exists, and he has had a good time being the focus of a lot of international attention, and Muslim extremists certainly destroyed the World Trade Towers, and, yeah, bin Laden may even have a circle of nutcases that call themselves al-Qaeda, but it's the current administration, hungry for a supermenace to replace the Soviet Union as a useful focal point for American paranoia, that has ascribed to them vast and powerful organization and resources like long-planted sleeper cells, and turned them into a catch-all for all potential terrorists and any type of terrorism fear. Or, as Scheer puts it, "Everything we know comes from two sides that both have a great stake in exaggerating the threat posed by Al Qaeda: the terrorists themselves and the military and intelligence agencies that have a vested interest in maintaining the facade of an overwhelmingly dangerous enemy." I know, I know: another nutty conspiracy theory. Worth some investigation, though, if only to disprove it. Can't wait to see the documentary. (Did I mention I finally saw FAHRENHEIT 9-11? Or tried to. Bored me to tears. Quit after 20 minutes. There are more better, if less flamboyant, documentaries on both 9-11 and the Hand Puppet playing regularly on the Independent Film Channel.)
Finally, seems the tsumani of the century has gone spiritual. Yesterday morning's paper ran an op-ed piece where the writer - I forget who and am too disinterested to go look - claimed Muslim sources now claim the tsunami, which did a disproportionate amount of damage to Muslim countries in the Indian Ocean, was caused by Christians and Jews. I didn't bother reading the whole article; anyone dumb enough to believe that (presuming some Muslim outlet actually said it) is already too far gone to argue with. Then I heard about Tuesday's Congressional Prayer Service, where Congressmen of all stripes meet to break daily bread, read scriptures, discuss various topics and reaffirm the great Christian underpinnings of our great democracy. A smattering of discussion about the terrible effects of the tsunami was then punctuated by the Biblical stylings of ethically-challenged current speaker of the House Tom DeLay, who reminded everyone both of his own innate sensitivity and Matthew 7:21-7:27:
"Not every one who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven; but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.Many will say to me on that day, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?
"Then I will declare to them solemnly, 'I never knew you: depart from me, you evil doers.'"
Everyone who listens to these words of mine, and acts on them, will be like a wise man, who built his house on a rock:
The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew, and buffeted the house, but it did not collapse; it has been set solidly on rock.
And everyone who listens to these words of mine, but does not act on them, will be like a fool who built his house on sand:
The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew, and buffeted the house, and it collapsed and was completely ruined."
Though, as someone who talks a lot about the Lord while influence peddling and pissing on everyone who can't afford him at every opportunity, if ongoing investigations in Texas have any validity, Tom might possibly know whereof he speaks...
But the funniest part of the show, for me, is Devane's character: Secretary Heller. See, a few years back Fox and Columbia made a pilot of my mini-series ENEMY. One of the key players in that story was an FBI agent named Heller, but Fox didn't want a character named Heller on the air because they suspected Christian groups might be offended by a character with "hell" in his name, so the character's name changed to Halme or something like that for the show. Now lo and behold... But I'm enjoying 24 so far, now clearly the best action show on TV.
Been catching up some on DVDs too: HERO; WALKING TALL (2003); and THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW. HERO I wish I'd had the chance to see in a cinema, but it was come and gone so quickly I missed out. Chinese myth-history beautifully shot and beautifully played out with an incredibly simple story endlessly and fascinating permutated, and the best use of color in film in years. WALKING TALL, starring The Rock, and THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, starring Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhall, are both films I'm just as glad I didn't go out to see, but on a TV screen they turn out to be perfectly satisfying popcorn films. If you find the Rock charming (I generally do), he makes WALKING TALL fairly easy to take, and Johnny Knoxville is surprisingly entertaining as his ex-con sidekick, but if you don't like the Rock you'll probably fixate on the plot inanities instead, and, man, there are plenty of them. Aside from the inherent stupidity of deciding to take a cross country walk through a new tundra that used to be the United States, in a climate where the temperature could abruptly drop to 150 below, once you accept the ecodisaster premise of THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, nobody does anything particularly idiotic, except, of course, for the Cheney stand-in who refuses to listen to scientific evidence when making government energy and pollution policy and mostly blusters his way through the film before finally eating crow after calamity has elevated him to President Of The ex-United States. Funniest bit in the film: as the country literally freezes over, millions of Americans try to take refuge in Mexico, only to be locked out at the border. In an 11th hour bit of diplomacy, the President convinces "the Latin American states" to take in American refugees by agreeing to throw out the debts those countries owe us. Here's my question: according to the film, over the space of six days the USA turns into an uninhabitable chunk of ice, except for Hawaii and the tip of Florida. Who exactly would those Latin American nations then owe that money to, anyway? Seems to me that debt would pretty much void itself. On a similar note if the entire Northern Hemisphere is going to freeze over, how will fleeing to Mexico help? Mexico's in the northern hemisphere. Questions like that aside, I don't know if I'd call it a good film, but the action's exciting, the special effects are good (the flash freezing of New York City is the standout), the acting's a bit overearnest but that's expected in disaster films, and, considering the critical drubbing it got on release, it was far more entertaining than I figured it would be.
Henry V. Twine, a researcher at the Biophysiological Institute at the University of West Texas, has put forth a plan to harvest eyes from the living blind whose blindness is caused by conditions other than damage to the eye itself, in order that eye parts might be distributed to those who need and can use them. "Tissue harvested while living is safer, more resistant to disease, and less subject to expiration before use than tissue harvested from the recently dead," Twine explained. He tersely dismissed accusations of ghoulishness. "Why leave perfectly good organs in people who can't use them?" The American Medical Association is currently studying the merits of Twine's proposal, and surgeons have seized on it with zeal, with some calling for additional practices like the harvesting of still potentially functional limbs from paraplegics whose paralysis is due to irreparable spinal trauma and similar conditions, proclaiming the benefit to patients to be incalculable. Hospitals and insurance companies also favor the proposals, as proceeds from the limbs, eyes and other organs will help them defray service costs.
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.