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Issue #21

In honor of Walt Kelly, Friday the 13th comes on a Wednesday this month.

Last week's flurry of rumors re: DC and Wildstorm got me thinking. Never mind that they turned out to not exactly be true. The original ALL THE RAGE touted rumor was that Kirby's famed 4th World creations – NEW GODS, FOREVER PEOPLE, MISTER MIRACLE, KAMANDI, OMAC, and possibly THE DEMON -- were shifting to Wildstorm for reinvention in the wake of the recent ORION cancellation. This week's variation is it's just KAMANDI and OMAC, along with non-Kirby features ADAM STRANGE and VIGILANTE, which makes sense, considering how entrenched in DCU continuity much of the "Fourth World" is.

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But it briefly started me thinking about the problems of reinventing Kirby.

In the 30 years since Kirby introduced his "New Gods Saga," DC has tried to make it work on several occasions, without real success. (There's a question as to whether the first, quickly cancelled run was a success or not, as some stories have the cancellation not caused by sinking sales but by DC politics.) I always saw the Fourth World books as something of a dead end, and they always made me feel a little sad for Jack. Here was one of the true titans of the industry, creator or co-creator of some of the greatest creations of comics, and he had finally attained a position where instead of dealing with partners like Joe Simon or contractors like Stan Lee, he was finally running the whole show himself, running with his wildest ideas – and the best he could come up with was superheroes.

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Not that Orion & co. didn't have their moments, and Darkseid (in the Kirby incarnation before extreme overexposure, anyway) was one of the great villains. The idea of creating a new pantheon of awesome beings who function as gods for our age in the way ancient Norse or Greek gods, which Kirby lovingly mined in Marvel's MIGHTY THOR and other titles, functioned in theirs remains a strong core concept. And the best Jack could do in realizing that concept was to make the New Gods into superheroes.

Or maybe that's the best he was allowed to do, though the myth was that the Fourth World material was "Kirby Unleashed." It's equally possible he had just toiled in the salt mines for so long that it's the best he figured he'd be able to sell. It doesn't matter what the reason was. What matters is that, while few have ever been better than Kirby at drawing slugfests, to have characters we're supposed to believe are cosmic and godly reduced to slugfests similar to those seen in dozens of other comics produced at the same time is something of a letdown. It's just not convincing. The superhero outfits (mixed with the leftover Greek and Norse god outfits, not to mention the Italian Renaissance outfits and the Roman statuary, etc.) are just not convincing. If we were told these guys were supposed to be superheroes, okay, maybe. But we're told they're gods. New gods. But everything about them screams superheroes, and as superheroes they just don't really stand out from the crowd.

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They've been tried both ways by now. In the first revival after Kirby, DC streamlined things, added some funky characters, and went more superhero with the concept, with about the results I'd expect. Later incarnations by Mark Evanier/Paris Cullins, John Byrne and Walt Simonson went way in the other direction, and while all were successful in some ways, all had the same result: no running Fourth World titles.

So it seems to me that if someone really wanted to make a go of the "New Gods" trilogy, what they'd have to do was strip it down to the core concept, throw out everything Kirby about it, and start from scratch. In other words, go "post-superhero" with it. When you bring supposed gods down to a human or even quasi-human level, as Kirby and his successors do, you don't make them more accessible, you make them trivial, and this is the trap in the concept. There's just no way to make them special if they function as superheroes, and that's the role they have as set up no matter how hard anyone (and Evanier, Byrne and Simonson, not to mention Kirby himself, are pretty substantial anyones) tries to make it work. Throw out all the superheroisms and rebuild from the ground up, working out what "gods" truly means in the 21st century. The ancient gods were figures of awe and terror, cruel and capricious and mighty, remote from humanity except to serve the gods' lust for sex or worship and having total control over man's fate. In order to be successful, new gods would have to be able to make us believe in them, for at least the space it takes to read a story, as gods. Kirby's New Gods never could. Maybe no one can. Maybe our culture just isn't capable of believing in gods anymore. Or maybe, when it comes down to it, comics just aren't the right place for them.

Comics in the media: the current issue of VANITY FAIR has a fairly incoherent piece on a (as near as I can tell, fantasized) "resurgence" of interest in Superman as a result of 9-11. I have to wonder what press agent managed to get that bit of hype in there.

And Todd McFarlane came back to TV this past Monday, appearing for around ten minutes on TechTV's SCREEN SAVERS to discuss his career. Not exactly sure why Todd was on a show about computers, except that the interviewer (didn't catch the name) seemed fanboy bubbly about his being there and started with the hope of that the mint copy of SPAWN #1 stored at his parents' house would put his kids through college one day. (Good luck with that.) No, they didn't talk about the Tony Twist or Neil Gaiman lawsuits, but, aside from doing his Razor Ramon impression, Todd came across as a reasonably articulate spokesman for the comics industry. Despite admitting to being 40, he also come down solidly on the side of youth, noting that many aging people who had their youthful fun are now trying to "protect" modern youth from having theirs. While the interviewer's "facts" were a bit shaky, they discussed Todd's origins in the wage slave trenches, his "founding" of Image Comics (Todd was quick to mention six other artists were also involved), the spawning of Spawn and Todd's moves into media and toy markets, and finished with a chat about his animation work on the forthcoming live action film THE DANGEROUS LIVES OF ALTAR BOYS and a very brief sketch of how computers are used in creating comics today. My favorite part was the little card they ran stating how, in 1990, Todd's SPIDER-MAN #1 became the best-selling comic in history (knocking my own THE LIFE OF POPE JOHN PAUL II out of the slot, sob) but didn't bother mentioning it held that record for all of about six weeks. As I said, Todd carried himself pretty well, but is it really too much to ask that all these doofus interviewers educate themselves on the subject before shows?

Last week I discussed whether Marvel's publishing policies were screwing freelancers and came up ambivalent. Not so Comic Experience's outspoken Brian Hibbs, who wrote in with a retailer's perspective:

"On the topic of Marvel's refusal to not only go back to press, but to not have any reorders available... One factor you missed is that when a customer can not buy a comic that they read good things about, quite often they just shrug and say 'forget it, then.'

"When, say, HOWARD THE DUCK #1 gets rave reviews, yet is unavailable past the first week on-sale, that hurts the long term prospects for both the property, AND the creators.

"Whatever post-release efforts Gerber might embark on to raise awareness of his work and the book are almost certainly wasted. There are no copies to be had.

"Further, because I can't get any more copies of HTD #1, that automatically limits the number of copies that I can sell of #2-6. Shouldn't be that way, but that's how the comic consumer typically behaves.

"Marvel, right now, is in a situation where they like to rob Peter to pay Paul (though, if that's Levitz and Cuneo, then I guess it is the other way around!) but the market arguments don't really make a lot of sense. Clearly it's much more expensive to maintain a good and diverse stock of TPBs than it is to do the same with the periodical comics."

Brian also adds:

"You make some very good semantic points about the terminology used with freelancers, and how, often, people get things wrong (working "for") but I'd like to observe that you use (I believe) the wrong terminology for comic book shops.

"We're not "dealers" -- I don't make deals; I sell, I retail, but I don't 'deal.' Comics have prices, those prices are what they are, and there's very little negotiation involved.

"When cats come in, and pick out a pile o' comics, and ask 'Can I get a better price on these?' I always wonder if they do the same at the grocery store, or when they're renting videos. 'Hey, I want to rent all six of these... will you give them to me for the price of five?'

"Clearly they don't (well, some might, but then a certain percentage of the population is nuts), and I suspect that we might be able to change this kind of behavior over time if we were to drop "dealer" from the lexicon referring to people who sell comics.

"Well, OK, maybe not. But a boy needs a dream, don't he?"

After some e-mail discussion, Brian and I have settled on "retailers" as the correct term, though I like "merchants" myself...

Thanks, Brian.

I wasn't at APE (the Alternative Press Expo) in San Francisco this past weekend (and neither was Colleen Doran, so if you saw her you were hallucinating, clairvoyant or duped... I'd go with clairvoyant...) but my spies Charlie Chu and Rob Beddard sent in this report:

"While the annual San Diego Comic-Con has all the glitz and glamour (such they exist in the comic book world) APE attempts to focus on substance over style. Gone are the large publishing houses like DC, Marvel and Image; this is where small and independent publishers shine.

"But the "larger" independent publishers are in attendance, such as Oni Press, AiT/PlanetLar & Top Shelf. As well as some recognizable pros, ranging from Steve Lieber (WHITEOUT), to Judd Winick (BARRY WEEN:BOY GENIUS), Lea Hernandez (KILLER PRINCESSES, RUMBLE GIRLS) and Carla Speed McNeil (FINDER).

"The atmosphere's significantly different to what you get at a typical major convention. No big garish booths of vendors pimping typical superhero stuff, no grown adults running around in costumes. Just myriad 'zine writers, and mini-comic creators.

"Rather than being a purely consumer-oriented experience, the event reflects the strong sense of community prevalent among independent publishers. Everyone barters their work, and, as creators trade, mini-comics fly around the hall from hand to hand. These mini-comics are typically photocopied 12 page comics from the brilliant to the utterly ridiculous to, in some cases, awful.

"There's a fantastic opportunity at APE to explore the depth of the comic book world and experience a great deal of material that you're sadly not like to see in most comics shops. It's well worth spending the time to pick up plenty of small press material, and some of the work is very inexpensive.

"Again, this isn't an event to attend for most superhero fare. You won't find it. If you want to open your eyes to a broader range of the comic book medium, APE's the show."

"Picks:

"Derek Kirk's SMALL STORIES: the book collects some of his serials and shorts, also available for viewing on his website.

"Ivan Brunetti's HAW!: not for the children, unless you want to put them in therapy, and have the police come and take you away.

"Scott Morse's MAGIC PICKLE: He's a pickle, he's a weapon, and he's here to fight injustice. It's bloody funny. Also contains backup stories from Jim Mahfood."

Since he doesn't have a column here any longer, I decided to check up with Larry Young re: APE as well. Readers of Larry's now defunct CBR column LOOSE CANNON may recall that in one of his last columns, Larry issued the "mini-comic challenge," defying people who claimed they wanted to do comics to deliver one to him at APE. Turns out it was an enormous success, resulting in 41 different mini-comics varying from 8-36 pages in length, which were then made available to the public at the AiT/PlanetLar table. APE turned out to be very encouraging for the business, particularly if you think independent comics are the future; it didn't rain for the first time in four years, resulting in a three hour line to get in on Saturday and an extremely congested con floor, while many, like Rick Spears and Rob G., who produce the raw and entertaining indie TEENAGERS FROM MARS, were doing a brisk business. The only puzzling question: why is no one willing to look Larry Young in the eye anymore? Go ahead. I dare you.

I'm starting to think it's time for the USA to switch to some sort of nationalized medicine. Never mind the rising cost of medicine and health insurance, or the service records of HMOs; I've seen a couple other good arguments for it recently. The first is the inability of many doctors now to afford malpractice insurance, since those rates have also skyrocketed as a result of big settlements and judgments, and without malpractice insurance most doctors, especially surgeons, aren't allowed to practice. It's hard to make generalizations about whether doctors deserve those penalties for screwing up so much or whether attorneys are making mountains from molehills and gullible jurors are voting with their emotions instead of their heads – anecdotally, I'm sure you could find plenty of both – but it seems to me some sort of government oversight might arguably be more effective than the AMA's, and it would fall to the government rather than individual doctors to deal with any legal claims, thus keeping more doctors working and theoretically only punishing those who really screw up instead of all of them.

The other argument is a national security issue. Read an article about the various really dangerous germs that could be unleashed by terrorists. A couple of them are dangerous because we made them that way, and I'm not talking about military germ warfare programs. I'm talking about doctors who can't get it through their heads how, where and why to use antibiotics and pump them into their patients at the drop of a hat despite strong warnings about such behavior, so we've now got various lethal bacteria running around that are impervious to known treatments and constitute a very real health threat. Talk about medical malpractice. Very strong government oversight may be the only way to finally get this under control, especially since there are new superantibiotics on the horizon but it would only take a little misuse to put them on the ineffective list as well.

Of course, there are problems. Government health agencies have no more been strangers to the manipulation and co-option by the drug industry than many doctors. The right wing has traditionally objected to nationalized medicine because (among other reasons) it would require new big government bureaucracies, and that's probably true, but since the current administration has started creating new bureaucracies right and left with much right wing support, that's apparently no longer an issue. Doctors have traditionally objected because nationalized medicine would make it harder for them to earn livings, but since they can't earn livings now, I can't imagine they'd pass up the opportunity to continue practicing in relative safety. But something has to be done, and quickly, even if it's not a national health service. It's pretty clear that leaving medicine to the chaos of the free market system is verging on making medical care inaccessible to pretty much everyone, and leaving a huge hole in any pretensions of "homeland security" on top of it.

I have gobs of books to review but I'm out of time so, unfortunately, they'll have to wait until next week. In the meantime, I'd like to mention that Fox has reportedly declined to order new episodes of FUTURAMA (7PM, Sunday) so it looks like that series will be dead come the end of the season. Too bad. A few columns back I mentioned it as the TV cartoon to watch, so if you plan to, start now 'cause you're running out of time. Finally, last Thursday saw the debut of Matt Friction's new CBR column, POPLIFE, purporting to be a journal of Matt's invasion of this business in the dawn of his career. Looks to be a worthy successor to Warren Ellis and Larry Young. No, wait, I mean Matt Fiction. No, Matt Faction. I mean Matt Fractious. Hell, you know who I mean, and if you don't go read the column and find out.

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.

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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.

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

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