Issue #224

(Which is to say: not particularly. Which doesn't mean it doesn't have its own pleasures.)

While writing styles affect things somewhat, the standard comics format is a short story form. Despite cover claims comics used to love to post of "full-length novel complete in this issue!" there's just so much you can fit into 17-25 pages of story (roughly the low and high end story page counts in the average comic book), and 17-25 pages usually barely accommodates the content level of the average prose short story, particularly when editorially mandated amounts of "action" (fight scenes, chase scenes, random movement, etc.) are figured in. As anyone who has ever adapted a film to comics knows, action eats up a lot of page space. "Action" is often considered a mandatory element of comics, especially of "commercial" comics (though given most current sales levels, calling them "commercial" is something of a conceit these days), since "action" is "visual" and comics are a "visual" medium. This generally space lost to characterization, theme or philosophy beyond the most rudimentary, which turns out to be convenient for those genres (sp. superheroes) where theme and characterization are fairly rigidly fixed notions. Two issues of a comic book, even when they form a single story, don't usually qualify as a "novel," only as a longer short story.

But length by itself isn't an accurate measuring stick either. Part of the problem is that comics of any length generally (whether consciously or unconsciously) follow three-act film structure, not novel structure, which is why so many novels adapt so badly to film. (Increasing numbers of novels are written with an eye toward film adaptation these days, but while a few of them get very popular few turn out to be very good novels.) In fact, novels have so many structures it's hard to identify "novel structure" as such; comics, even "graphic novels," really have yet to experiment much with structure at all, and the vast majority fall back on "standard" comics structure, apparently without even considering that other forms are possible. (Unlike film structure, which basically evolved as a tool for developing plot, novel structure is really more similar to - and just as varied as - the structure of a symphony, in which themes are set in motion, developed in apposition to one another, varied, and built to a conclusion.) Looking backward therefore isn't likely to turn up much that varies from "comics structure." Even Gil Kane's HIS NAME IS SAVAGE, which until recently I considered the first modern American graphic novel, has pretty standard point A-point B-point C structure, despite its other variations from the form.

Which is to be expected; things which in the moment seem to be radical departures from the norm often, on closer examination, turn out to be not so radical after all. (And HIS NAME IS SAVAGE was striking and shocking for the time, a real liberating shot in the arm at a time comics really needed it, and kicked the door in for much of what came afterward, conceivably the most influential commercial failure in comics history, but in retrospect half its power came from being surrounded by the timidity of other comics.) Regardless, Gil did intend a number of things from the start, which HIS NAME IS SAVAGE, largely carries off: a longer form allowing for more elaborate storytelling, a more "novelistic" narrative form (even if the novelist it most emulates is Mickey Spillane), a greater complexity of character. While the physical length of the story isn't all that great (though likely as great as the era would allow), Gil compensated, as the great European albums of the '60s did, with a larger page size that allowed more content per page. (Comparatively) Rudimentary though it was, HIS NAME IS SAVAGE does hold a good claim to being an early modern American graphic novel.

The second one.

Thank Steve Ditko for the first, though it's been unacknowledged to this point. Back when I first heard the term "graphic novel," in FANTASY ILLUSTRATED/GRAPHIC STORY MAGAZINE and GRAPHIC STORY MONTHLY, great fanzines of the late '60s and early '70s, I remember someone made the claim that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's FANTASTIC FOUR, particularly the run from around #34, which introduced Medusa and, by extension, the Inhumans, through - well, that depends on your point of view - was the first great American graphic novel. I disagree. The run is filled with great ideas and characters (among those introduced are The Negative Zone, The Inhumans, The Black Panther, Galactus, The Silver Surfer, the Kree, and Him, who would become Warlock), but storylines stop and start, interrupted by whatever new idea Lee and Kirby decide to play with in a given issue, and even if a great umbrella arc can be perceived - at this point it's a little like looking at scattered distant stars and deciding which of them form constellations - the run is dotted by standalone stories that have nothing to do with anything. There's not much in the way of a general theme, aside from "heroes don't let anything stop them!", and most damningly none of the core characters - the Fantastic Four - are changed in any way by their experiences. Does Johnny Storm come out of it all with a vastly increased awe of the wonders of the universe? Does The Thing comes to terms with his monstrous transformation? Not really. Status quo maintains for all the characters throughout, as is expected for a monthly comic book of the 1960s. The work is exciting, and it's long, but it fails to meet any real criteria of a novel.

I don't know whether Stan Lee or Steve Ditko came up with Dr. Strange. I'm inclined to think Stan, since a similar character that Ditko had nothing to do with, Dr. Droom, appeared briefly in Marvel monster comics just prior to Dr. Strange's introduction, though Strange's design is clearly Ditko's and, despite Lee-esque names like Baron Mordo (which invokes memories of Lee's monster mag stories - "I Faced Morrdo, The Beast That Ate The Earth!"), Ditko's hand can be seen in the plotting from Strange's first appearance, a five pager that has Strange entering a swindler's dreams to find himself in the Nightmare Dimension, a surrealistic landscape of the sort Ditko would become renowned for. Given Ditko's adherence to the Randian objectivism, a philosophy denouncing supernatural influences and emphasizing concrete and immutable values which he'd later introduce into a number of series and which he had intended to be the foundation for AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (word is that, rather than be suspended in his permanent state of angst and semi-sophomoric uncertainty, Spider-Man under Ditko would have matured into a confident hero with a firm grasp of right and wrong), Dr. Strange, pencil mustache deep in unreality, would seem to be exactly the sort of character Ditko would dismiss.

But if you read Ditko's Dr. Strange, it's obvious the character holds a more personal involvement for him than Spider-Man does. Despite the brevity of early stories, a specific dramatic structure quickly emerges, with a trinity of players set up almost immediately: the good acolyte Dr. Strange, the evil turncoat Baron Mordo, and their aged, infirm master, originally called The Master and later The Ancient One. The story then, is about the wisdom of the past being handed down to what amounts to two sides of the coin of the present, which must engage in struggle to determine whether good or evil will triumph. Strange's origin, presented in the third story in, is a highly condensed version of what might have been Ditko's intended Spider-Man progression: a successful, egocentric surgeon, Strange damages his hands in a reckless moment, then wastes his fortune trying to get them repaired. Desperate, he hears of an "Ancient One" in the far Himalayas who can cure him, and goes to him with the sole selfish motive of getting cured so he can go back to his high-paying life of wine, women and fast cars. But Strange's long-dormant conscience and broader view of life are pricked when he uncovers Mordo's plans of conquest, made practical by black magic that turns out to be very real. Magically prevented by Mordo from notifying the Ancient One, Strange weighs his options and he must be the one to save the world from Mordo, because no one else can. It's a basic superhero origin, but focuses on Strange's maturation from selfish (i.e. juvenile) playboy to a selfless man willing to take on enormous responsibility - as core a theme as can be found in Ditko's work.

A half-dozen or so of Strange's early stories are typical Stan Lee monster tales, rewritten for Strange's involvement: a haunted house turns out to be an extradimensional invader; aliens possess townspeople in a sleepy, clich�d European village; an amnesiac mystery woman displaced in time is revealed as Cleopatra. But the others, including several repetitive tales where Mordo reappears to threaten Strange and the Ancient One, seem to already be chapters in a nascent graphic novel. One, "Mordo Must Not Catch Me," is the purest statement of Ditko's principles prior to his later creator-owned series MR. A, whose hero constantly reiterates "A=A" to underscore immutable moral values. Mordo captures The Ancient One (how, Lee and Ditko don't divulge) and attacks Strange, who spend most of the story apparently helpless fleeing him around the world in astral form. It's a trick; Strange is really preying on Mordo's infantile ego while searching for his master, and, on finding him, easily crushes Mordo's "dark magic." (With classic Lee-scripted pomp like "See how the light of righteousness can ever dissipate the dark cloud of evil!")

Read in quick succession, the stories become less repetitive, mainly because each encounter with Mordo leaves Strange stronger, until even Mordo is aware that Strange has exceeded him. (Conversely, in the first story, Strange barely survives Mordo's attack, and requires clues from his master on how to win.) This, along with a two-episode war introducing the infinitely stronger "Dormammu, lord of the dark dimensions" (who becomes an interesting expansion for Ditko, a character "... evil, true... but only by our human standards! According to his own lights, he has his own moral code!"), sets in motion everything to follow.

What follows, beginning in STRANGE TALES #130 and ending with Ditko's last issue, #146, is a long serial that's my new candidate for the first American graphic novel. At 11 pages per issue for 17 issues, it runs 187 pages (253 if you include the pertinent earlier stories) on a single storyline that, for the most part, develops systematically, follows a specific theme, develops its characters, and brings all its threads to a satisfying conclusion. Despite occasional side stories and a little fumbling as scripters on the series change, it's far more direct and coherent than the FF run. Considering what few precedents it has, it's a real leap forward for both Ditko and the medium, and very influential; the basic elements of the story are replayed in series after series in the years after it.

Those who feel Stan Lee's work on these series gets slighted may believe I'm unduly singling out Ditko's contributions. It's true that the dialogue is notably Lee's, except where it isn't, but the credits painstakingly denote Ditko as the plotter - therefore the prime creative force - behind the arc.

The story, made standard by repetition since, was original enough in its time: attacked by Mordo (in secret alliance with Dormammu, who vowed to Strange he wouldn't invade Earth and needs Strange eliminated to obviate that vow), Strange is overwhelmed by Mordo's new Dormammu-fed power, stripped of virtually everything he has - the Ancient One descends into a coma, Strange's bases of operation and most of his mystic resources are compromised, he doesn't know which former allies he can trust; he doesn't even wear his costume for much of the story - and sent on the run, desperately following every lead on a way to overcome his enemies and surviving on determination and quick thinking while Mordo's horde of human and spirit minions dog his every move. It's not just a simple cat and mouse game; Ditko subtly matures Strange and his behavior in the course of things. It's good plotting, too. In one sequence, Strange, having invaded the comatose mind of the Ancient One for information, tracks down what he believes is his last hope, a seemingly omnipotent being called Eternity, only to have Eternity refuse to help him, and he returns to Earth to find his enemies holding all the cards and forcing him to a final showdown that allows both Strange and the readers to discover what, in Ditko's estimation, real power is. Mordo is defeated by his own doubts, Dormammu by his own arrogance and ego, while Strange functions less as a sorcerer and more as a trickster, capitalizing on their character flaws while learning to overcome his own. Ditko then pulls a neat trick of his own, slipping what readers might expect to be the climax to the story by dangling another, final future battle with Dormammu before them, and subsequent episodes pursue dangling threads from the story before the real conclusion, where Dormammu, believing Eternity responsible for his defeat at Strange's hands, attacks Eternity and they seem to destroy each other in a final cataclysm. Curiously, by this point, it's not really Strange's story anymore - he's little more than a witness to their battle - but the climax enables Ditko to achieve a true denouement, rare in comics serials.

Interesting things about the "novel": Ditko appears to be setting it up as early as the second Dr. Strange story, which means he may have been considering the longer form even then. Even given the serial nature of the story, which does make it a bit choppy in parts, Ditko also seems to have specifically viewed it as a single novel. His splash pages are usually a single image and a summary of the storyline, but drop the splash pages and the action flows seamlessly from end of one episode to the beginning of the second page of the next; except for coming attractions boxes, read that way they usually read as if there were no break. And, despite the demands of '60s comics, Strange's character clearly develops as a result of the series. If his origin shows him evolving from infantile selfishness to a more self-aware but still juvenile consciousness (he becomes functionally a child being educated and raised by a father figure), the "graphic novel" has him clearly becoming his own man, "graduating" to a new place in the world and becoming a clearly adult personality. This was unusual for Marvel Comics in the '60s, where characters mostly seemed destined to an eternal adolescence regardless of apparent age. It's not very common even now.

And, sure, the series has many of the familiar shortcomings of '60s Marvel comics; in commercial comics, you can only expect to get away with so much, even with something like Dr. Strange, which was about as backwater as you could get in the Marvel hero line. (I think it was Les Daniels who once stated that STRANGE TALES when it starred Nick Fury Agent Of SHIELD and Dr. Strange, was a really schizy book, and Dr. Strange fans must have thought Fury obnoxiously militaristic while Fury reader must have thought Strange pretty fey. Though I never had trouble with either of them.) But maybe only in a backwater could someone get away with that level of ambition, and I believe Ditko intended the strip to be not simply a serial but something like an actual novel, with theme, character development, a clear throughline/spine, climax and denouement, and other elements traditionally identified with the novel. The hero's triumph over overwhelming odds might seem typically Marvel Comics - Ditko in fact put Spider-Man through similar, if more compressed, paces in his "Master Plotter" arc in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #31-33 - but here it functions as an honest expression of Ditko's personal philosophy, and should be taken in that spirit.

So here's to Steve Ditko, the first graphic novelist. I always knew he was a pioneer in many ways. I just hadn't, until now, realized the full scope of it.

Then there's Janus, two-faced Roman god of the door, who looked toward both past and future and gives his name to January. As I looked at the past this week, I suppose next week's the time to look to the future. (For me, this is the week I'm sorting out what projects I truly want to get off the ground next year, since I did so little, really, this year.) Let's face it - between war, disasters, economic downturns, domestic spying revelations, and who knows what personal calamities befell people, 2005 wasn't such a hot year. (If I were the Hand Puppet, I wouldn't be looking backwards or forwards with any enthusiasm. Today news came out - though, if I remember right, I mentioned it here years ago - that the NSA, whose domestic spying authorized by the Hand Puppet in contravention of American law was revealed a couple weeks ago, were spying on UN diplomats at the time the Administration was pressuring them to back a war resolution on Iraq, while in Iraq, the latest demonstration of their "urge to democracy," the vote to elect representatives, has disintegrated to the brink of flat-out civil war, as Shi'ite-run courts ruled Sunni representatives ineligible for office on the basis they once belonged to Saddam Hussein's - largely Sunni - Ba'athist parties, and things erupted into violence as Sunnis, Kurds and smaller factions denounced Shi'ites as ballot box stuffers in the recent election to ensure they got control of the country.) Comics didn't do too much in 2005, but they didn't lose any ground either; mainstream book publishers increasingly embrace the graphic novel as a form, and while the number of manga titles available may arguably have oversaturated the market, enthusiasm for manga in general shows no sign of diminishing. All in all, no gain, no foul, and the fallout from small changes in the business, like Diamond's crackdown on small titles (and, by extension, small publishers), hasn't really hit yet. So I guess the real question is: yes, we all know there are things that should be done better, but, in practical terms, is there any non-theoretical way to do them better? How do we advance American comics in 2006?

While we're all pondering that, have a happy new year. To quote Shane McGowan, I see a better day, when all our dreams come true.

"just a quick data point of feedback:

* I am interested in new comics and finding out what is out there that is good

* in the abstract, I love the fact that you provide little reviews oflots of exactly this sort of material

* in practice, I find I almost never read them.

I don't know why. I don't know if it's just me or if there are a lotof people that skip the review bits. Maybe there's something in thepresentation that doesn't grab me as much as it could? I dunno. Ican't think of a more sensible way of doing it than the way you'redoing it. I just thought it was worth mentioning, because you seemthe kind of guy that would like to have this kind of feedback lodgedsomewhere in the back of his mind rather than never hearing it at all.

(Hmm. I suspect this email comes close to wasting your time. Sorryabout that.)"

No, not at all. If the reviews aren't doing someone any good, I'm glad to hear about it. But reviews, good or bad, still publicize comics and books that find it difficult to even be mentioned elsewhere. (It is weird to once in awhile get an e-mail from someone who has gone out and bought a book on the strength of my bad review, though.) Short version: the reviews aren't going anywhere anytime soon, and hopefully they'll do you more good in the future.

"Thought I'd share with you some of the happenings in the Philippines' comics scene this year:

This year, the cottage industry of comics continued to shrink, with the death of one of the more prominent comics publishers, leaving the field with four major comic book publishers. Of the four, two of them - Summit (imports Disney Italy comics) and Psicom (reprints DC's superhero material) - publish primarily comic books licensed from abroad (as they'd rather not gamble on untested properties or unproven talents), although Psicom has recently augmented their line with fantasy and romance anthologies. The two other active publishers are Nautilus Comics, with its ongoing (but not regular) series CAST, annual special projects, and comics-related events; and Mango Comics, by far the one with the most diverse portfolio of titles, which include a Mad-style MWAHAHA magazine, a comics magazine for girls called JAM, and various superhero titles. The rest of the industry are made up of independent comic book creators, "self-publishers," and in a third world country, "self-published" usually means photocopied, stapled, black and white comics.

Creatively, though, the industry is on the upswing. It seems to finally gotten over the Japanese manga trend, and has started diversifying again. This was best seen in the recent comic book convention organized by art group Artists Den - the first one in years that didn't rely on anime and manga fans and cosplayers for their crowds. It was, as many comic book fans noted, the first true comic book convention. It was also the first that gave long overdue recognition to the traditional Philippine comic book masters, like Alex Nino, the Alcalas, and others.

In addition to the comic book convention, this year also saw the 1st Philippine 24-Hour Comic Book Challenge, held along the white sand beaches of Puerto Galera (which I helped put together). Five creators were asked to write and draw 24-hour comics revolving around kali, the ancient Filipino warrior arts; the event was our way of attracting interest in comics as a medium of communication, as well as increasing awareness of our own rich culture and history.

And finally, on a personal note, we capped off the year with the release of SIGLO: PASSION and PROJECT: HERO, both attempts to reintroduce a sense of wonder back to our comics, and both epitomes of Philippine comics in 2005. The first, a full-color, glossy production, is an anthology of literary comics stories set across a hundred years of history (Siglo is Filipino for century) that explores the different kinds of passion - from passion for food, to nation, to religion. The other is a black-and-white, xeroxed indie (wrapped in sheep's clothing - we had the cover offset printed, to give the illusion of high production values!) that is essentially our love letter to the superhero comics we grew up with. It's eight new superhero stories that evoke the unbridled sense of fun and imagination of comics past, and it's from some of the creators of the self-aware, serious SIGLO: PASSION. Who says we can't be both, right?"

Not me. Thanks for the report. Despite a fairly steady influx of Filipino comics talent into the American comics business, we tend to forget here that the islands are traditionally a hotbed of interest in comics. Sorry to hear about the market shrinkage but it's great to hear the enthusiasm in the rest of it. Feel free to drop us a report anytime. (And those in other countries are welcome to do the same.)

"Enjoyed [last Wednesday's] column. I had just read an article the other day about "busting video game myths" that seemed to fit into todays topic, and might be of interest.

MIT professor Henry Jenkins argues against eight of the myths about video games, violence, and "the children," specifically:

1. The availability of video games has led to an epidemic of youth violence.

2. Scientific evidence links violent game play with youth aggression.

3. Children are the primary market for video games.

4. Almost no girls play computer games.

5. Because games are used to train soldiers to kill, they have the same impact on the kids who play them.

6. Video games are not a meaningful form of expression.

7. Video game play is socially isolating.

8. Video game play is desensitizing.

Also, have you read Gerard Jones' KILLING MONSTERS on this topic? I know that you enjoyed his MEN OF TOMORROW and was curious."

No, I haven't. (Which shouldn't be taken as an indictment of the book; I just haven't.) I'm pleased to see Jenkins' article but, if experience with the "Big Mothers" who went after things like cartoons, action figures and rap music in the '80s is any indication, no amount of evidence is going to convince them that something isn't a "threat to children," mainly because their interests are political, not altruistic, so they've got a platform to protect. But we struggle onward regardless.

"Have you seen Violent crime stats in the U.S. as correlated to video game releases?

Here is a fun paragraph:

The FBI has just released its 2004 crime report. The results? The violent crime rate has further dropped 2.2% since 2003. The number of murders is down by 2.4%. And our violent youth? "As for trends in arrests of juveniles for violent crime, a comparison of 2004 data with those of 2003 indicated that the number of juveniles arrested for violent crimes declined 0.8 percent, 5.5 percent compared with 2000 data, and 30.9 percent compared with 1995 figures."

So, according to the FBI, the murder rate hit a new 40 year low in 2004. The best selling video game of 2004? GRAND THEFT AUTO: SAN ANDREAS."

Wow, what's the world coming to when even the FBI is making my points for me?

Got several e-mails on the subject of what to wish people in the holiday season:

"I liked your little piece on the so-called "War on Christmas" but have to admit I'm getting a little tired of people responding to it when it really doesn't exist. The "War on Christmas" is really nothing more than Fox News' attempt to stir up some controversy and in turn some better ratings. What they fail to realize is that the majority of Christians are rational tolerant people who really don't care what people say to them. They also seem to forget that as far as Christianity goes, Christmas is not even our big holiday; that would be Easter. Christmas as it is celebrated by the vast majority of people, Christian or not, is about consumerism and presents and trees and lights, none of which has anything to do with the birth of Christ. So when the guy at WalMart doesn't say Merry Christmas to me, I don't even notice, or acknowledge the fact that he didn't directly take note of my religion.

So far the Daily Show seems to be doing the best job of blowing these guys out of the water (last night's rerun where they pointed out that Bill O'Reilly used a 1 year old clip from their show to make a point was particularly funny) but I wouldn't mind at all if everyone in the world just ignored those blowhards so they'd go away and stop pandering to the paranoid bible thumpers who don't really understand their own religion."

I probably wouldn't have mentioned it had I not made the mistake of turning on the radio one morning to hear some DJs who usually don't bother with such things going on and on about it. The problem with just ignoring things like this is that while they're small it's usually best to but once they start to steamroll - and that was happening for a brief moment there - you kind of have to start getting in its way because when you don't that's when things really start getting out of control. And it's exactly the sort of non-issue that some people can really take to heart. To wit:

"It goes way beyond saying "Happy Holidays" at stores. Some people have lost their jobs just because they said "Merry Christmas" to someone and that someone objected. Here in San Diego County, a girls dancing troupe is suing the city of Chula Vista because the city council won't let them dance in the Christmas Parade due to their name - "Jesus Christ Dancers". The "Christmas on the Prado" parade in Balboa Park has been changed to "Holiday Parade" so it won't offend anyone. A group of liberal activists have been after San Diego for fifteen years to get rid of a cross on a hill in La Jolla again because some might be offended by it. Get a clue, this is a Judeo-Christian nation with Judeo-Christian values - get over it!!"

Hmmm... no, it's not. It has a large Judeo-Christian population, certainly, but American values are enshrined in the Constitution, not the Bible, and the Constitution is not a Biblically-inspired document. And the country also has a large non-Judeo-Christian population. And what is a "Judeo-Christian" population, anyway? Jews and Christians may acknowledge and tolerate each other's religions, but I don't know any who think they're the same religion. Technically, Christianity is a heresy of Judaism. Even all Christians don't really believe the same things. I seem to remember centuries of conflict wracking Europe - and extending to the American colonies - over Protestantism splitting off from Catholicism, and technically to a Catholic any Protestant is a heretic. On the other hand, there's obviously a certain amount of Catholic/Christian heritage in America, particularly in formerly Spanish dominated locales like California, so I don't know that I'd get all exercised about getting crosses removed from hilltops in La Jolla, but I understand why cities might not want to be perceived as endorsing any religion over another (they're really not supposed to, you know) by letting "Jesus Christ Dancers" take part in city-sponsored parades. But has anyone actually lost their job just for saying "Merry Christmas" to someone, or is that a convenient folk tale that's being bandied around?

"I think what you wrote encapsulates the entire point. Retailers who do everything they can to cash in on the Christmas holiday should also be the first to wish you a Merry Christmas and not try to mouth some universally acceptable greeting. Christmas fuels the entire retail cycle for many retailers. Acknowledging this seems only to be good business. I don't think everyone's taste or viewpoint has to be accommodated. Most people shop for Christmas presents this time of year and most people celebrate Christmas as either a religious or secular holiday. So Merry Christmas it is.

When Ramadan and Kwanzaa has them rushing to the stores the day after Thanksgiving to spend hard earned cash, then sure let it rip with the Happy Kwanzaa or Joyful Ramadan. Even you have to admit that the whole tendency to push Happy Holidays in stores and culturally as a greeting has been part of leftist political correctness and little or nothing to do with what most people actually do or celebrate this time of year."

Mmmm... I'd have to say that you're the one missing the point. That WalMart and other merchants are capitalizing on the holiday season is hardly unexpected at this point, but the fact is that regardless of what particular holiday they're capitalizing on, when you walk into any given store, they have no way of knowing what your religion is unless you're wearing a big button that reads "I am of the __________ faith," whatever faith that may be. For all they know, you could be a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hopi, an atheist, a Satanist, whatever. And, as you say, it has become completely secular tradition to give presents at this time of year regardless of your religious affiliation, so why should they be wishing you "Merry Christmas" when that behavior's no indication you're a Christian either? (You also conveniently omit Jews, who have their own holy days that they have every good reason to shop for at this time of year utterly apart from the birth of Christ.) "Merry Christmas," whether you like it or not, is exclusive and presumptive by its very nature; as it carries both a religion and a secular meaning, the recipient can't be sure which is meant, and I can see where that might cause problems for some people. "Happy holidays," on the other hand, is non-exclusive, and can apply to anything: it includes Christmas. So what the Christians fussing for "Merry Christmas" (and it's by no means the mass of them) really mean is that they don't want to be lumped in with everyone else, they want special treatment and special consideration. As someone further up the page said, get over it.

From Boom! Studios:

10 by Keith Giffen & Andy Kuhn, 48 pg color comic ($... okay, Ross, I'll bite: why no price on this?)

Giffen's work is always readable and enjoyable, and 10 is no different, but... there's something missing here. I've seen the premise before, in independent films: guns are sent anonymously to select "players" who have no choice but to hunt down and kill each other. The speed at which the story takes place makes characterization sketchier than comfortable; the "hero," just back from a long vacation and unaware the "game" exists let alone has begun, is the best fleshed out, while the nominal "villain," a bloodthirsty, manipulative psycho apparently driven mad by previous participation in the game, is little more than a conundrum. His climactic behavior is an amusing twist but a logical stretch, but that's only part of the problem. Various elements are contradictory, like the players supposedly being chosen at random but both the hero and his recently ex-girlfriend are picked, pitting them against each other in a potentially emotional scene that's undermined by her inexplicable incoherence. I kept waiting for her to get a single complete thought out so we could tell something about her. On top of everything else, virtually nothing about the game is revealed, except its existence - who'd go to the trouble of putting it on, and who in their right mind would go along with it? - but it leaves so much evidence scattered in its wake that authorities surely would have uncovered it and shut it down had it been going on long. There's nothing wrong with Kuhn's art; he gets the job done just fine. But it seems to me the premise could have done with considerably more fleshing and explanation, though I hope it's not planned as a potential series because that would be redundant real quickly. A noble failure, I'm afraid.

From Del Rey Manga:

NEGIMA! Vol. 8 by Ken Akamatsu, 214 pg b&w trade paperback ($10.95)

Eight volumes in and I still don't get this series. Not that there's anything incomprehensible about it: a 10 year old British warlock becomes a teacher for a class of 14 year olds at a Japanese girls' school while training to perfect his magic. A lot goes on in this volume - in manga tradition, hero Negi undergoes extreme training to "get stronger," then squares off against a demon for the sake of his charges while his "origin" is revealed and a boy from his past reappears - but, really, all the Harry Potter stuff remains little more than an excuse for pubescent smut. I know all the sex stuff in the book, the lingerie and girls with smoothed Barbie doll bodies swimming naked and all the innuendo, is supposed to be cute, but it's just irritating. Not to mention creepy. (The art's not particularly good either.)

GACHA GACHA Vol. 2 by Hiroyuki Tamakoshi, 210 pg b&w trade paperback ($10.95)

Speaking of which. GACHA GACHA's a little smutfest too, like '70s sex comedies that always teased going to the edge of sex then abruptly pulling back. In a freak accident, virginal heroine Kurara gets a bunch of videogame characters stuck in her head and they start emerging as separate personalities that take her over at all the wrong times, to the exasperation of hero Kouhei, who has sworn to protect her (from herself, among other things) and keep her secret safe. Which takes a lot of doing. New personalities this time around are a curious Lolita with a penchant for undressing named Alice and a homicidal kung fu fighter named Rin who can only be stopped by squeezing her breasts. (It doesn't take a lot of imagination to figure out what kind of videogame it was.) But, at least with this volume, GACHA GACHA also has a decent amount of genuine humor (especially when Kurara has to masquerade as one of her variant personalities), good art, and characters bordering on endearing; the story is really becoming about both Kouhei and Kurara coming out of their shells. Better than the first volume.

THE WALLFLOWER Vol. 6 by Tomoko Hayakawa, 186 pg b&w trade paperback ($10.95)

This is a series that treads water and treads water and never gets anywhere: four beautiful high school boys earn their rent by babysitting a goth chick they're supposed to turn into a lady. She hates them, she loves them, who cares? She has gotten dull. This volume includes the "origin" of the fab four, a trip to a snowbound spa to visit a lovesick friend, the gang gets involved in a horror movie, they go swimming, sort of. It's not bad, but it's just kind of there, heading nowhere.

From DC Comics:

HARD TIMES SEASON TWO #1 by Steve Gerber, Mary Skrenes, Brian Hurtt & Steve Bird, 32 pg color comic ($2.50)

Saving the best for last. This marks the return of one of last year's more extreme concept, at least for commercial comics: a teenager who unwittingly hosts an avenging spirit is sent to high security prison for his part in a school shooting, thanks to a "zero tolerance" judge. The first "season" covered his disturbing adjustment to life in a maximum security prison, with OZ level violence and a number of memorable (if disquieting) characters, and a savage eye toward various social, political and legal structures. A daring work. Season two starts off just as well, and Gerber and Skrenes come up with a fine introductory story that fills in protagonist Ethan's past while quickly bringing any new readers completely up to speed with the story, and is as nasty an attack on the sorts of high school hierarchies that foster maladjusted outsiders as any I've seen in print, but without being a complete screed. I always thought the weak spot in the series was Hurtt's blocky artwork, but that's been modified some by new inker Bird. All in all, a terrific launch for the new series. Give it a try.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Comic Book Resources honcho Jonah Weiland for hosting the column all these years and putting up with a whole lot of crap from me in the process.

The winner of last week's Comics Cover Challenge was second time winner Robert Smentek, who correctly identified the covers as being drawn by artists who at one point or another had worked in one of Will Eisner's studios: Lou Fine, Bob Powell, Nick (Nicholas Viscardi) Cardy, Mort Meskin, Jerry Grandenetti, Wally Wood and Mike Ploog. Beaming with more pride than desire this time around, Robert nobly wishes to promote a friend's online comic, so click on the link and go take a look.

Don't forget my two books are available in pdf e-book form at The Paper Movies Store: TOTALLY OBVIOUS, collecting my Master Of The Obvious essays on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life; and IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS, a running commentary on American life and politics in the first half of the Terror Decade. 250+ pages each, $5.95@ or both for $10.95. What are you waiting for?

Thanks, everyone, and have a terrific 2006.


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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