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Issue #19

Does reading comics books make you smarter?

Yeah, I know. That sort of self-aggrandizing twaddle's best left to checkout mags and useless self-help books.

Except...

A long time ago I wrote a Master Of The Obvious (which will be collected in book form pretty much immediately after I finally get around to editing it, by the way) where I mentioned something the industry simply doesn't like to talk about: there are many very intelligent people out there who are unable to read comic books. At the time, I likened it to a foreign language; if you don't know French, you can't pick up a book in French and just start reading it.

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Now I'm wondering if it's not more complex than that.

I mentioned last week I'm writing a mini-series for Avatar Press called MY FLESH IS COOL, about a contract killer who uses a drug to shift his mind into other people's bodies so he can operate through them, and what he does when the drug hits the street. For some background I was researching brain physiology, which reminded me of something I had known for a long time but just not put together:

Written language is processed in the left half of the brain. Visual (art) stimuli are processed in the right half. Which means if you read a comic book properly – not looking at the picture then reading the words or vice versa as many who don't normally read comics try to do, but taking it all in as a whole as experienced comics readers tend to do – you're using both halves of your brain at the same time. There may be other activities that require that as standard practice, but I can't think of any off the top of my head. So reading comic books requires, at minimum, a cognitive discipline relatively few people in the world have mastered.

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I think. That's how it breaks down logically, anyway.

Does such activity actually make us smarter? At minimum, we're using our brains in unusual ways. Researchers love to do scientifically suspect studies on things like whether reading comic books leads to violent behavior (always hinging on, among other things, what one means by violent behavior) but I'd like to see some studies on whether reading comics has any effect on intelligence, since there's already a sound scientific reason based on brain physiology to think it might – and, if so, whether it might be preferable to teach children to read comics and an early age then use comics as educational tools throughout the educational system.

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Speaking of affecting intelligence... the cliché is that music soothes the savage breast (not beast), but it's been proven that learning to play music has a strong positive effect on intelligence, and music students tend to be better students overall: sharper thinkers with better grades who are far less likely to get into trouble. Yet, as budget cuts hit schools all over the country, music programs are often the first to go. Sports programs, on the other hand, offer far fewer benefits to students or school and are rarely open to all students but for reasons mostly of sentiment and tradition are zealously protected by schools regardless of budgetary effects on other programs. Now I'm not saying sports are useless or should be banned, but I am saying schools choose the priorities they think will please the bulk of their constituents, so if you're a parent or otherwise in a position to influence education policy in your local school or school district, particularly if you're concerned with the specter of school violence (which is often brought up to justify this bit of scholastic repression or that) it's time to work to rearrange educational priorities and focus on what will do the most good in the long run for the students. And the answer to that is music programs. For more information, check out the organization Music In Schools Today.

And as long as we're speaking of things...

I'm not usually much of a stickler for grammar. Longtime readers may have noticed me playing fast and loose with sentence structure and syntax on a regular basis, and occasionally coining new words, something I've been doing for fun ever since I began writing professionally. The fact is that the English language is a basically unruly beast that went for centuries without any specific rules, until Victorian England attempted to impose some rigidity on it, with as much long-range success at its attempt at a global empire. (Among the more laughable "rules": never split an infinitive, which caused Raymond Chandler to scold his typist with "when I split an infinitive I damn well want it split," and never end a sentence with a preposition, a rule which prompted Churchill's famous retort, "There are some things up with which I shall not put."

That said, there are three wrong usages appearing with alarming frequency on the web, and I'd like to do my feeble little bit to nip them in the bud.

The first is a ridiculous confusion of the words "effect" and "affect." With alarming frequency, I'm seeing people writing things like "How will Wolverine's decision to get a sex change operation effect the other superheroes in the DC Universe?" Now this is a real simple thing. "Effect," as a verb, means "to cause, to create, to accomplish." "Affect" means "to influence, to change." Don't use "effect" when you mean "affect." Christ, is that so hard to get right? Likewise, I've read sentences, particularly in reviews, like "Dark Horse uses the Predators to great affect in this story." "Effect," not "affect." Get it right.

The second involves the use of "less," and this is something I read in newspapers, hear on TV news, and come across online all the time. And it truly drives me batshit. I don't know why, but it does. As in someone saying, "There are less comic books worth reading on the market today." The overall sentiment's a matter of opinion but the use of "less" is just plain wrong. I suppose the kneejerk reasoning is that since "less" is the opposite of "more," you'd say less in a situation where you mean the opposite of more. But that's wrong, because "less" has a tense. It's singular. The plural of "less" is "fewer." Say it with me: "less" is singular, "fewer" is plural. There may be less reason to read comics today (again, a matter of opinion) but there are fewer comic books worth reading. Got it?

The third I'm bringing up just to be pissy, since even dictionaries don't agree on it: the use of "insure" when one means "ensure." Originally "insure" meant "to indemnify, to underwrite or warrant" and "ensure" meant "to make certain (an outcome." These days the two are probably hopelessly confused, but it exasperates me to see things like "Marvel is taking steps to insure Alan Moore's proper credit goes in all future editions of CAPTAIN BRITAIN." Ensure's a perfectly good word with a very specific meaning, so why not use it? There are more words in English than in any other language, so why not find the right one?

Sorry for the momentary fit of pedantry. If you've got any, feel free to list them at the newly redesigned Permanent Damage Message Board. (And one last one, since it just sprang to mind: the phrase is "different from," not "different than."

Was dragged to see THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO this weekend. I have a love/hate relationship with the story, having adapted it for a hellish (if beautifully drawn, by Dan Spiegle) CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED adaptation in the early 90s. Mine's much more faithful, but the movie's probably better. For a swashbuckler, it's very light on swordplay – really just one extended scene at the end – and star Jim Caviezel's effective as both the naïve and fairly dopey Edmund Dantes and the shrewd, calculating Count, but there's still something a little too modern about him to be entirely convincing. My main interest in the film was Guy Pearce, brilliant in 1997's best film L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and last year's best film MEMENTO. Here he does his best with what's essentially a one-note part as the supercilious, treacherous main villain, and while I see a big future for Pearce as the new Gary Oldman (the villain in pretty much every movie made for several years there, and don't forget when Gary Oldman was the new Dennis Hopper) I hope he doesn't take that route, because he's capable of much better than that. (On the other hand, every time I see the trailer for Pearce's upcoming THE TIME MACHINE, the less interesting it looks.) The film plays almost religiously faithful to Dumas' novel for the first two thirds, then wildly divergent as it throws out huge heaping chunks of the story, probably wisely narrowing it down to the main revenge storyline, and injecting a twist that would've been utterly scandalous in Dumas' day but now registers little more than an "oh, but of course." Still, as a timewaster, you could do a lot worse, and it's practically worth the price of admission for the vastly underrated Luis Guzman alone. (Guzman, as the Count's manservant, gets the single best line in the whole movie, and pulls it off hysterically.)

It's getting to the point where I won't be watching anything on television anymore. Now OZ (HBO, 10PM Sundays) is dangerously close to getting whacked off my list. I know many who think OZ terribly unpleasant, but I've always found Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson's overheated drama of prison life utterly fascinating, by far the best show on TV, though I can understand why some people wouldn't like it. Until this season. It's halfway through its 2002 run, and I've had a creeping dissatisfaction since the season's first episode. Finally figured out why. At it's best – that is, the first three seasons -- OZ's central theme, underlying everything else no matter how grim or gruesome, was the desperate challenge of trying to hold onto something resembling human dignity in an inhumane and dehumanizing environment. This is what all the main characters were about, even characters as apparently vile as the Nazi Schillinger and the runaway best character in the series, perennial schemer Ryan O'Reily, brilliantly played by Dean Winters. Starting somewhere last season, though, and swinging into full force these season, the series has become about... nothing. It has gone from focusing on desperate men to focusing on just how bad the bad events can be made to be. Every attempt at decency is ultimately reduced to some horror show, with the authorities too inept, stupid, corrupt, lazy or just plain outmatched to be able to affect (not "effect") anything. This is a big problem for "cutting edge" shows (and entertainment, including comics) in general: eventually the soul of the show is always lost to the need to be more and more extreme in order to retain that "cutting edge" reputation. To make matters worse, virtually every storyline this season is a revival or rehash of old storylines that should've been played out long ago. OZ needs to make some possibly painful changes very quickly, among them getting Beecher out on parole (hell, he's a lawyer by trade, they could keep him in the series by turning him into an advocate of radical prison reform) and for chrissakes can't somebody finally off Schillinger, or at least his far too unpleasantly psychopathic loose cannon flunky Robson. If you can ice Adebesi, you can ice Schillinger. At least they quickly finished up the embarrassing Rev. Cloutier storyline. They've got me another month, until the end of the season, but then it's a very strong possibility I just won't be watching OZ anymore.

And isn't the Washington scene getting interesting, as failed energy giant Enron's possible influence in the Bush administration gets more and more attention? I don't think it's any secret that the energy industry and the White House have traditionally enjoyed a cozy relationship, regardless of who was in the White House at the time, and it's also no secret that the Bush family fortunes are strongly connected to the energy industry. But it's hard for me to fathom that there's a politician alive today who still thinks they can get away with "the American public doesn't care about that, so we're not going to answer any questions about it" because if there's one thing guaranteed to get the public's attention, it's the refusal to answer questions. The administration's claim that their meetings with energy officials are private and not to be shared misses the point that administrations set energy policy for the American people, and that makes it the American people's business. At least now we know why the non-communicative vice president Dick Cheney is really staying at an "undisclosed location": you can't interrogate someone you can't find. But the press, so far, has missed the real significance of the whole Enron mess, and it's not the viability of 401(k) plans (though that's an important aspect). It's that Enron isn't run much differently than virtually every energy company in this country is. Here in Nevada, for instance, we've got Nevada Power trying to get a whopping one billion dollar rate hike. Why? Because they screwed up. They made a bunch of bad business decisions – it had nothing at all to do with providing power or the cost of providing power to the state of Nevada – and they want us to pay for their blatant mismanagement. To the best of my knowledge, the company hasn't made any stipulations about a similar situation not happening again or offering to replace the clearly inept management in order to secure the rate hike. No, they just want the money. This sort of casual contempt has always been pandemic in the energy industry, and my guess is that a little digging would show Enron hardly stands alone. But the energy industry is a very powerful bloc, with their hands (and money) in many many pockets, and money talks. Even now, the financial firm of JP Morgan faces a billion dollar liability and potential extinction due to their association with Enron. If the Enron investigation spills over to the energy industry in general, we're looking at one hell of a potential mess.

Among my projects listed last week was a western graphic novel, RED SUNSET for AIT/PlanetLar Books planned for the earliest possible date (like, as soon as we find an artist). To my surprise, I got a flood of e-mails cheering it with great anticipation, far more than on anything else; apparently there's an unsuspected horde of western comics fans (and potential fans) who aren't being served. They'll want, then, to go find Saddle Tramp Press' HOLLIDAY ($2.50), a tale of the legendary consumptive gunfight Doc Holliday, by writer Dave Samuelson and artist Jason Wright (who also provides the coloring for several DC titles). It's a bit fanciful, following the new "horror-western" tradition pioneered by books like JONAH HEX, WEIRD WESTERN TALES and DESPERADOS, as Holliday hunts old enemy Johnny Ringo with prompting from three semi-demonic riders called The Horsemen. It's as entertaining a western as has been done in comics recently, and Wright's art (his first penciling job, I'm told) is pleasantly reminiscent of the western art of the great underground cartoonist Jaxon. Have your dealer pester Diamond for it, or e-mail Saddle Tramp Press for ordering information.

Fintan Press sent the ashcan of their April release THE FORGOTTEN ($2.95, from Fintan Studios), a Vertigo-influenced tale of a little known superhero now turned occult, possibly ghostly, investigator tracking down a murderer to save an innocent boy. I mean, you can smell HELLBLAZER rising off the pages, and I don't mean that negatively. Evan Young and Jareth Grealish wrote it, and John Forcucci drew it with Mostafa Moussa and James Taylor on inks. Aside from no real reason to have superhero underpinnings to the book (at least so far; maybe something happens later on that demands it), and the art's uneven, but the book's of almost professional quality and at least as professional as a lot of what has passed for pro work from smaller companies. The dialogue could be a little sharper but it never quite feels familiar, and while overall the material doesn't quite separate from the pack it's more entertaining than a lot of comics I see. I'd need to see more to be completely convinced, but not bad.

I went through my "heroic fantasy" (though then it was called sword-and-sorcery) phase in my mid-teens, and even then beyond the work of Michael Moorcock, Robert E. Howard, and John Brunner's "Traveler In Black" series, I didn't have a lot of use for it. I never had any use for anthropomorphic animals in comics, to the point of having zero interest in even Carl Barks' admittedly brilliant UNCLE SCROOGE. These two points killed me on Wendy Pini's ELFQUEST, which I've never warmed to, and on Dave Sims' CEREBUS, which I found interesting only after he'd abandoned the Conan and Marvel pastiching and started in on heavy political satire (though, never being a Marx Bros. fan, that was also tainted for me). So you can imagine that Jose Calderon and Daphne Lage's TALL TAILS ($2.95, Dream Weaver Press, FDR Station Box 671, New York NY 10150), a heroic fantasy starring sword-wielding, walking-on-two-legs, talking wolves and lions and rhinos, is pretty much calculated to drive me right up a wall. So I'm going to do something I've never done before: recuse myself from reviewing this, because I don't think I can do it justice. I will say, giving it a cursory glance, that if you do like this sort of thing you'll probably want to check it out, and everything can be ordered – there's a trade paperback collection ($14.95) as well as a regular comic series - through Dream Weaver's website, or from your local comics shop. Understand this is not a condemnation of the book, just an admission I'm not the right one to review it, and I'm keeping my eye out for someone who can. Maybe Matt Fraction wants to take a crack at it when his CBR column starts up.

Anthropomorphic animals also populate Steve Hamaker's FISH N CHIPS ($2.95; Vigil Press, 101 N. High St #C-2, Gahanna OH 43230). This time it's humanoid cat as action movie star. Who has a humanoid cat cop big brother who hunts "vampyres." Who has a partner with a goldfish bowl for a head. In a future world with flying cars. Hanaker works for Jeff Smith's Cartoon Books, and his heart's obviously in the right place, but for a book with so much going on it's drastically thin in the story and things need a lot more explanation or buildup. The short version: I don't get it, and funny animals have nothing to do with it. Maybe next issue.

Finally, Candle Light Press sends the interestingly bound NUMBERS (a tale of shades and angels) ($5.00) by Thomas Smith Allen. It's a neat approach, with stiff cardboard covers and binder rings to approximate the look of a small art portfolio. I can see a lot of Steve Ditko and Will Eisner in the page design, and while I cringe at expressions like "up fecal creek," the writing on this tale of a police detective obsessed with a serial killer (albeit one who preys on criminals) who got away is pretty good (though this is just one of the threads; if I tried to list all the subplots we'd be here all day). The art is less good than the layouts, however; as with many beginning artists, Allen's work is uneven, but hopefully he can overcome that with more practice, and it does get more confident as the book proceeds. (This volume was collected from earlier serial publication.) This is one of the projects currently available online at WowComics and, while not entirely successful, it's at least pretty damn ambitious, as deserving of the name "graphic novel" as anything I've read short of FROM HELL. If you've been wanting to check out online distribution of comics, you could find worse places to start than NUMBERS.

A couple final notes:

Responding to last week's mention of the homoerotic potential of soon-to-be-released AUTHORITY toys, reader John Christie sent in this item:

This is from the SOUTHERN VOICE for Jan. 4, 2002 (a free gay weekly). An interview with Ian McKellen, emphasizing his success as an out gay actor, drifts into his (seemingly quite real) excitement at being a Burger King light-up chalice, air freshener, beer stein, etc.:

"But being part of Hollywood merchandising is nothing new for McKellen.'I've already been an action figure as Magneto from X-MEN,' he points out. 'You can play with your Magneto figure and your Gandalf figure and they can fight each other, or you can have them love each other.'"

So Apollo and Midnighter can just wait their turn. Take care...

Thanks, John.

It keeps slipping my mind but the Batboy play in fact closed at the Union Square Theater last December, despite being listed as active on the WEEKLY WORLD NEWS's website – and lots of PERMANENT DAMAGE readers were more than happy to let me know that. I guess you really can't believe anything you read in the WEEKLY WORLD NEWS, though the listing is down now.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the newly redesigned Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail 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. 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.

If you want to know something about me, you can probably find the answer at Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions.

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