Issue #180

Which, of course, flies in the face of pretty much everyone's experience. Fact is, most movies are flaming crap, and everybody knows it. I mean, Hollywood spends 90% of its time churning out gross-out comedies, sophomoric sex comedies (the main draw of which are naked bouncing boobs and smutty half-jokes), repetitive horror movies with as much gore and pseudo-Hitchcock jagged music and jump cuts as they can get away with and still get screened, and, occasionally, innocuous kiddie flicks "the whole family can enjoy," and one night a year they want us to believe movies are art. Who do they think they're kidding? Let's look at last weekend's top 10:

  1. Diary Of A Mad Black Woman
  2. Hitch
  3. Constantine
  4. Cursed
  5. Man Of The House
  6. Million Dollar Baby
  7. Because Of Winn-Dixie
  8. Are We There Yet?
  9. The Aviator
  10. Son Of The Mask

or: gross-out comedy, sex comedy, horror, horror, sex comedy, Art, kiddie flick, innocuous kiddie gross-out comedy, Art, gross-out comedy, and you know both Million Dollar Baby and The Aviator would have vanished from the list weeks ago if they hadn't been pimped so hard as the heirs apparent at the Oscars. (Warren Ellis, on his website, ran a hilarious bit on Scorcese, after the Oscars, shellshocked, wandering the streets of Lower Manhattan wondering what it takes to win an Oscar if a Leonardo diCaprio film about a filthy rich bastard who can't find enough ways to spend his money won't do it, and kicking himself for not personally playing the Kate Hepburn role; in the final days before the Oscars, I had people telling me "momentum" - a fancy way of saying unfounded rumor - had swung toward The Aviator, to make up for the Academy botching it back when Scorcese did Raging Bull, forgetting that the critics originally had it exactly right and Raging Bull (now #46 or something like that on AFI greatest films of all time list, which says something) is flaming crap.)

If this sounds like I'm being harsh for being harsh, I'm told Rock, in his commentary, talked about Hollywood's propensity toward flaming crap as well. What no one really wants to talk about is they have every right to make flaming crap, just like anyone has every right to go see flaming crap, and pretty much everyone does, regularly. The fact is that the whole Hollywood moviemaking process is so hard to get through - most executives, and the bankers who fund the pictures and really run the town, seem to believe their true function is to not make movies - that it's a minor miracle any movie gets made, let alone good ones. So why is the town so determined that it's not enough audiences should enjoy films, they ought to respect them too? Sure, there are a handful of films that qualify as genuine art, spirit-altering viewing experiences, but Hollywood's not very good at them. If you want details, I again recommend Jonathan Vankin & John Whalen's BASED ON A TRUE STORY* *BUT WITH MORE CAR CRASHES (Chicago Review Press; $18.95), which covers 100+ films supposedly telling "true stories" (including Raging Bull) and amply demonstrating how the town can't keep its fingers off anything, with a compulsion to twist virtually all stories into a fairly constrained mold of simplistic motivation, conflict, "redemption" and triumph. It's just a fact. And if they have to do that to "true" stories, there's no reason to believe they're keeping their mitts off fiction. (That's a big "flaw" in The Aviator: there's no real way to get a "heroic" story out of Howard Hughes, a guy who made a lot of money but ended up as a nutty recluse who despite his resources dies in the squalor of his own paranoia. It's a fascinating story, but heroic? Not in any Hollywood sense, not without a hell of a lot of revision. Done right, the Howard Hughes story would essentially be a remake of Citizen Kane, in more ways than one.)

But the equation of the Academy Awards with art tends to eliminate consideration of most truly popular films, not to mention comedy. Don't want anyone believing Hollywood doesn't take itself and its sacred duties to "illuminate" and "edify" (seems to me the Comics Code used to have provisions similar to those) seriously. But maybe one of these years they should just relax and celebrate movies as fun, rather than movies as High Art. To paraphrase Robert Frost, art's a gift word; only someone else can call you an Artist.

One Hollywood star who appears not to take herself seriously is Halle Berry, who stunned the world by showing up at the Razzies to accept her Worst Actress award for CATWOMAN, screwing up TV's original Catwoman Julie Newmar, who also turned up to accept the award. An antidote to the Oscars, the Razzies (short for raspberries) annually "honor" the worst achievements in film. (The Hand Puppet won Worst Actor this year for Fahrenheit 9/11.) It's not terribly uncommon for actors and actresses to accept their Razzies in person; I recall Sharon Stone showing up a few years ago. Or was that Elizabeth Berkley? Anyway, stating that Catwoman took her from the top of her profession to the bottom, Berry mocked her Oscar speech of a couple years ago with

"They can't take this away from me, it's got my name on it... I want to thank Warner Brothers for casting me in this piece of shit," and warned her agent to "next time read the script first..."

which is funny stuff, but also disingenuous of Berry, whose top star status in the wake of her Monster's Ball Oscar (not to mention her much-touted action heroine status after her role as Jinx in the last James Bond film, though a Jinx solo film was reportedly killed following the Catwoman catastrophe) almost certainly put her in a position to help mold the script, as is the tradition now in Hollywood, since many films are financed on the basis of actor involvement and not keeping an actor happy can result in total shutdown, as happened recently on a Nicole Kidman-Russell Crowe film in Australia when Crowe pulled out. In many cases, it's almost anyone but the screenwriters who mold the script these days, and when you talk to screenwriters you'll get nightmare stories of script meetings where everyone from producers and directors to actors to set and costume designers to low end crew stick in their two cents about what should and shouldn't be in the script, usually without much regard for how elements in the script work together. And that's well before focus groups get involved. This is commonplace in Hollywood now; it's no wonder so many films are messes. As a result, screenwriters are easy scapegoats for the film industry, and I'm not sure if it fits with Catwoman or not, but it'd be nice if once in a blue moon some Razzie-caliber actor or producer or director just said, "We started with a decent script, then we started nitpicking it and changing little bits while forgetting the big picture, so we brought in the eighteenth screenwriter to do all kinds of patchwork on it, and, well, I don't think I'll be doing that again..."

"Original graphic novels are a weird thing. They don't make fiscal sense for us at Marvel. Let's say Joe Straczynski has a 200-page story. We could put it out as a graphic novel and it will only sell limited numbers, but if we have broken it down to singles over six to eight months, we would make a significant amount of money and we put it out as a trade and make money from it again, then as a hardcover and we make money again. Also, not everyone can afford 50 bucks and then the work is not getting exposed, only people with enough bank can get the thing."

The main thrust of comments about Joe's comments is disappointment over Marvel's lack of willingness to innovate anymore. But Marvel's not in the business to innovate, and hasn't been for a long time. (The argument can be made that the only reason the company was at all innovative in the early '60s was they were out of other options.) Original graphic novels aren't an innovation anyway; they've been around for thirty years, longer if you look outside America. Furthermore, you're not likely to see anything original from Marvel. I say that without sarcasm or scorn; like most corporations, they aren't in the business of original, and, being more of a corporate entity than ever before, the company exists mainly to exploit existing properties. That doesn't mean someone can't come up with an original storyline or approach once in awhile, but, face it, a Spider-Man story is a Spider-Man story is a Spider-Man story, whether it's in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN or ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN or India. Marvel's mission is to make Spider-Man or the X-Men, or any of its characters household words, what you think of when you think "entertainment." They're not on this Earth to experiment. The vast majority of corporations are about maximizing profit and minimizing risk. Marvel's no different, and if they were they'd likely hear about it from their stockholders.

And Joe's right that original graphic novels don't make fiscal sense for Marvel right now. While I've no doubt that sooner or later original graphic novels will become the norm, there isn't yet - at least in this country - a workable financial model for them, on Marvel's scale, doesn't yet exist. It exists on the scale of small companies like, say, AiT-PlanetLar where the burden of talent costs rests with the talent, and any creative pay is on the back end, and amortized over time. But with AiT, an original graphic novel is likely to be original all the way - no familiar characters, which automatically increases the publishing risk in our icon-crazy society - which also doesn't really fit into Marvel's overall structure. Sure, Marvel could produce OGNs on the AiT model, except Marvel is a company that requires rights, which AiT doesn't. While courts have been known to waffle on it a bit, the general principle is: you don't own rights to anyone's work until you pay for them. Meaning until money changes hands. For a structure like Marvel's, that's real risk.

But I'm sure when it does become financially feasible and market positive to go to original graphic novels rather than the serial-collection model (which really just mimics what manga have been doing for years, not to mention old French magazines like PHENIX, PILOTE and METAL HURLANT), I'm sure Marvel will be among the first to throw their energies and marketing power behind it.

By the way, those in the Manhattan area who'd like to personally hear Joe possibly expound on this and other topics this coming Monday (March 7) at Danny Fingeroth's Inside The Comics Creators' Studio seminar series at the Museum Of Cartoon and Comic Art, 594 Broadway, Suite 401, 6:30 PM. I'm told there'll be a question-and-answer session. Not sure about milk and cookies, though...

Speaking of old Marvel, I see in addition to turning Ringo Starr into a superhero, Stan Lee's teaming up with storied former Hollywood boy wonder producer Robert Evans to pitch around a new superhero movie called FOREVERMAN. (You know they haven't actually sold it yet because no studio is named.) According to Stan, "It has to do with crime and punishment in the not-too-distant future and a unique way of punishing people who are menaces to society. It's a concept that hasn't been seen before, with tremendously interesting villains with unique powers." In other words, it's about as vague as possible, so no word yet on whether the hero's a garbageman of the future...

  • EVERYMAN VOL. 1: BE THE PEOPLE by the Brothers Goldman & Joe Bucco, 96 pg. b&w graphic novel (FWD Books;$6)

    An interesting, if flawed, attempt to do serious political comics. In an America where the president has locked out votes to steal the election via electronic vote counting machines owned and run by companies supporting the president (any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental, y'understand...) a crime writer turned political agitator attempts to trigger a grassroots movement to win the country back from entrenched political. As a political fantasy it's not bad, and strangely sympathetic, in the end, to their Hand Puppet stand-in. It's a stretch to believe the finale of the volume would go down that way, but hey. The art's not bad, but hindered by inconsistency, particularly in the faces and foreshortening, and the book, apparently reprinted from comics form with the borders stripped out, occasionally eats the edges of dialogue, which gets annoying. Still, a decent start, and worth a look.

    BLUESMAN BOOK ONE by Rob Vollmar & Pablo Callejo, 72 pg. b&w graphic novel (Absence Of Ink Comic Press;$6.95)

    Vollmar and Callejo produced THE CASTAWAYS a couple years back, a good but truncated story of runaways and kings of the road in the Great Depression, and it's good to see them back with this excellent tale of two aspiring black blues musicians traveling Middle America during the same time period. The book's got a great feel for the time and culture - Vollmar peppers the piece with documentary quotes for context - without any of it feeling borrowed from anything but (vaguely) various legends of the blues. Strong characters, good dialogue, a confident and measured pace, and a story you haven't seen before. Callejo's art is more impressionistic than naturalistic - the thick lines sometimes look more like woodcut than pencil & ink art, which isn't a bad thing - for striking effect. I'm eager to see the second volume now; in the meantime, buy this one.

    BUDDY DOES SEATTLE by Peter Bagge, 336 pg. b&w trade paperback (Fantagraphics Books;$14.95)

    Peter Bagge's sort of the crown jewel of alternative comics as they were in the '90s, with an amazingly consistent, strong style and a savage sense of humor. All that's on exhibit here, collecting all the "Buddy Bradley" stories from his comic HATE. Buddy Bradley's sort of to grunge what Crumb's Mr. Natural was to hippies (or what Harvey Pekar is to Harvey Pekar), Bagge captures that period in time almost perfectly, and the stuff's not only well drawn and well written but it's funny as hell. What are you waiting for?

    DAISY KUTTER: THE LAST TRAIN by Kazu Kibuishi, 194 pg. b&w trade paperback (Viper Comics;$10.95)

    I reviewed the DAISY KUTTER comics a couple weeks back, and, looking through this collection, my critique still stands: a shaky beginning chapter leads to some very satisfying western action, with robots. (Don't ask, since no explanation is ever given.) At turns dramatic and whimsical, one of the better comics I've read lately. I wouldn't say it works better in collected form; it works fine either way. Worth a look, especially if you're a western fan.

  • Rumors are now widely circulating of a planned June attack on Iran, despite the assurances of the Hand Puppet and Condy Rice to our European quasi-allies that the option is not yet on the table, whatever that means. Ret. General Wesley Clark, who made a failed Democratic presidential run last year, and former arms inspector Scott Ritter, who opposed our invasion of Iraq on the basis that no weapons of mass destruction could be found there (which was inverted by the administration into an argument for the necessity of invading Iraq) have both said so recently, citing their own sources. On the one hand, there's no particular reason to accept their statements, given they've both demonstrated "hostility" to admin policy, which is the preferred code word for opposition these days. On the other hand, Clark's a general of long standing and Ritter, it's worth mentioning, is a Republican, not to mention a former Marine, so there's no reason to believe either have been completely shorn of their inside sources. And certainly there's been enough saber-rattling lately, despite the assurances to the Europeans. We've been "strongly opposing" any Russian nuclear technology going to Iran, and claiming Iran must follow international law despite the fact that a) in terms of their nuclear power development, they have, and b) following international law hasn't exactly been our strong suit lately. (If it were, the administration wouldn't have refused to ratify an international court unless Americans were exempt from its jurisdiction.) And of course we've been sending covert teams into Iran for whatever reasons, and doing illegal flyovers. Since the threat of developing nuclear weapons, despite not only zero evidence of it but every investigation coming up with a positive "no," worked so well in priming Americans to support the Iraq invasion (people may claim we've lived with the threat of nuclear war for so long we no longer take it seriously, but that's obviously incorrect) that the admin's making the claim with Iran every chance it gets now. (Last night I saw John McCain give an absolutely idiotic but impassioned speech about how Iran has all the oil it needs so it must be lying about only wanting nuclear power for peaceful purposes.)

    The nuke claim was also waved at Syria recently, along with a lot of other saber rattling, much of it involving the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Our own State Department announced we don't know who was responsible for the bombing that killed him, and the Syrians have decried the killing and called (like the USA and France) for an independent investigation, but you wouldn't know that from our press, which repeats as fact admin insinuations that Syria masterminded the assassination the same way it blissfully, for months, repeated admin insinuations that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda were in cahoots and Saddam masterminded the 9-11 attacks. Leading up, of course, to the invasion of Iraq. No doubt the Syrians are simply being cynically manipulative when they express grief over the Hariri murder and ask for an investigation. That's just the sort of thing you'd expect from those devious monsters, isn't it? Syria's now being fingered by the admin as the staging ground for the recent Tel Aviv bombing as well. Syria's response to these claims has been denial, the capture and surrender of Saddam's brother-in-law, and a plan to withdraw from Lebanon.

    Is Iran trying to develop nuclear weapons? Was Syria behind Hariri's death and the Tel Aviv bombing, and is the country trying to develop nuclear weapons? Damned if I know. What I do know is this guilt-by-insinuation stuff is no way to conduct international relations. It's an excuse for anything. Evidence has got to be the minimum standard if we're talking about sending Americans into foreign nations to possibly die. We're already seeping on two fronts - Iraq, where our ultimate legacy remains to be determined, and Afghanistan, the war we still haven't won but never talk about, where our legacy is mainly resurrected tribal warfare and the renewed prosperity of the heroin trade - and stretched thin as it is. We can't afford many more fronts, particularly among populations likely to be hostile after "liberation." And when Condi announces that Syria is "out of step with where the region is going," when increasingly it looks like the administration is trying to fulfill the scheme developed by Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et al in 1998 to depose Saddam Hussein and use Iraq as a military staging ground to effect regime change throughout the Middle East, despite their insistence to the contrary when the accusations came up as the sabers rattled over Iraq.

    Still, when Wesley Clark and Scott Ritter pinpoint June for the next stage of the neo-con dream, you don't have to take their word for it. Take the administration's word. According to Reuters, they're only willing to give Europe just so long to deal with the Iran problem before the United States gets directly involved.

    Until June, to be exact.

  • For some reason, I've been getting a ton of press releases in my e-mail lately. I'm not going to tell anyone not to send them, but you might as well know: I don't read them. I don't look at them. I don't even download them off the server. (I have a program that lets me know what e-mail's coming before it gets here so I can intercept anything I don't want.) Unless you're a personal friend. Even then, odds are pretty good I won't mention them, unless it's something really terrific that I think people should know about. Send 'em to The Pulse or Newsarama or CBR News. That's what they're there for.

    Some mythical entity willing and the creek don't rise, I'll be starting a serialized feature on creating comics next week. Time to formalize it all. At the moment, it's planned as a step-by-step guide. We'll see.

    For those who were wondering, my "free porn" column of a few weeks ago got tons and tons of hits. So it does work, which was expected but oddly deflating.

    If you want to know the real inside scoop on how comics are made, there's only one place to find it: the massive 300 page Master of the Obvious collection, TOTALLY OBVIOUS, available (cheap!) only in .pdf format through PAPER MOVIES. And don't forget in only a couple weeks the first issue of my CSI: SECRET IDENTITY miniseries is now out from IDW. It's never too late to pester your retailer for it.

    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.

    Warner Bros. Needs to Cast Jensen Ackles As Red Hood Already
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