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Issue #228

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Issue #228
  • THIS WEEK:

    NEW MOVEMENT FOR COMICS: the one thing missing in comics art today… maybe…

    FREE PORN: Google stands its ground as the Administration fires the first salvo of the upcoming elections off its bow

    POSTPONED DREAMS: your last chance to put in your indispensable two cents about 2005’s comics

    NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARDS: challenge winner, graphic novel distribution, culture notes, Wally Wood & more

  • I’m a little burned out today – I’ve been burning the midnight oil doing a rewrite on a graphic novel (an assignment, not one of my originals; the hunt for an artist comes next) and trying to finish a screenplay (a producer’s already attached and stamping his foot impatiently) in advance of the Sundance Film Festival (which ends this weekend) ending and the film pitch season in Hollywood starting again in earnest – so this one’ll be a bit on the short side. Focus isn’t my strong suit today.

    Okay, just because I catch crap for this now and then: Spoilers Ahead. Skip the next paragraph if that worries you. After that you’ll be safe.

    Recently someone aware of my connections to and great admiration for Gil Kane sent me a scan of a minor story he’d done in the… ’70s? ’80s?… a backup strip in DC COMICS PRESENTS #35 called “Whatever Happened To Johnny Thunder?” In those days, the “Whatever Happened To…” featurette had 8 page vignettes “wrapping up” the stories of fallow DC characters. It was still possible to “wrap up” a character’s story back then, when it was still considered preferable to create new characters (this was before anyone really understood work-for-hire) rather than trawl for old ones to resurrect, so that in effect no character’s story ever ended. (I was talking about this with someone the other day who wished DC had just had Wally West decide to get out of the hero business and go off to raise a family, but that’d never happen because no real hero would ever quit the business; it might make more sense but it’s just not heroic. Not that, I notice, they didn’t backdoor the return of Wally West at some point in the future, since he and his family vanish into someplace that not “the Speed Force.” I’m thinking Rann.) Anyway, this wasn’t the green-suited early ’40s goof with the magical Thunderbolt but the ’40s-60s cowboy hero originally drawn by Alex Toth in ALL-AMERICAN COMICS and continued by Gil throughout the run of ALL-STAR WESTERN. By sheer coincidence, the final issue of ALL-STAR WESTERN was the first comic I ever got, so I had a sentimental curiosity about the DC COMICS PRESENTS story as well.

    Anyway, I’m looking through the story, and, though not badly written by Mike Tiefenbacher, mainly known for taking over pivotal ’60s/’70s fanzine THE COMIC READER from Paul Levitz when Paul started pursuing a pro career, is about as perfunctory a story as you can imagine. As most eight pagers are. But it hits me, partway through, that it has something that’s missing in most modern comics.

    Not Gil Kane, though, of course, Gil is always missed. Not the western; those have been creeping around for a few years now and, if Marvel and DC can be believed, are on the verge of making a huge comeback. Certainly not eight-pagers.

    Exciting art.

    Don’t get me wrong. I like an awful lot of art these days, and while I don’t know that this is the greatest generation of artists to hit comics (you could make a good argument for an awful lot of terrific artists like John Severin, Frank Frazetta, Joe Kubert, John Romita Sr., Alex Toth, Harvey Kurtzman, Dan Barry, Bernie Krigstein, Gil himself – I don’t mean to forget anyone but the list goes on and on – rising up during the late WWII and immediate post-war days, and other eras can lay claim to a great number of talented comics artists too), the really good artists are tremendous artists. But…

    Sometimes I get the sense that comics art has somehow become more remote, distanced from the reader. There’s a coolness about much of it in a McLuhanesque sense, a restraint. Panels and pages are often better designed than ever before, often more solidly delineated, as in John Cassaday’s work on books like PLANETARY and CAPTAIN AMERICA. John’s art is generally brilliant, what’s called photorealistic. Cinematic, by one definition of the term. He’s easily one of the best artists working in comics today. I’m only singling him out as representative of an uberstyle that has permeated comics. I think to some extent it’s the result of the growing self-consciousness of comics talent over the last thirty years or so, a desire to separate oneself from the product via irony, deconstructionism and other literary tricks, as well as the seemingly burning desire of many talents to remind readers that they’re only reading a comic book! (We wouldn’t want them accepting them as real for twenty minutes or so, after all.) It has become uncool to not do take that approach, particularly in the world of superhero (and, by extension, action-adventure) comics. What I’m talking about is the artist’s equivalent to that.

    I love looking at it, but sometimes it’s like looking at a series of perfectly posed still photographs. It’s fascinating, it’s even compelling, but think about photographs and then think about movies. Way too many facile comparisons are made between comics and film, but the great weakness of comics in comparison is that comics don’t move. Movies do, therefore you accept some things easier from film than you do from comics. A long time ago I read an interview with Gil where he went into this in some detail, citing a western movie – it might have been SHANE, I don’t remember, but I remember what he said: when you see two men having a fist fight in a movie, those are two real people on the screen so whatever their inadequacies as fighters, just because they’re real you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and accept that these are two men fighting to the best of their abilities, however good or bad those abilities are. You don’t have that luxury in comics. One of the greatest challenges in comics, specifically action-adventure comics, is achieving a sense of motion. Two drawn figures are not automatically interpreted as fighting to their best of their abilities, because it works the opposite for comics: the immediate perception is that the figures are not real. It’s the comic artist’s job to overcome that perception.

    Photorealism is one means to that end. (The flip side of the schism in comics art today is an increasing dependence on cartooniness; there really doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle ground anymore, with each side of the divide claiming superiority for one reason or another. Me, I tend to fall on the side of realism in comics art, but I’m aware that’s mainly because that was the tendency when I was growing up reading comics and I’m also aware that’s not automatically an argument for it, though I also have a great fondness for idiosyncratic design styles, which is the third current branch of comics art that incorporates aspects of the two others while striking off on its own.) The problem with photorealism is that it starts to function as snapshot art, moments frozen in time and arranged in sequence to tell a story. In a way, it abandons the question of achieving the illusion of motion in comics art by giving up on it entirely. (Oddly, when I see the chain mail on John’s version of Captain America’s costume so finely delineated that there’s a bit of shadow on the lip of every overlapping link, as if it were a well-lit photograph, it makes me so aware of it that it pulls me right out of the moment.)

    In the Johnny Thunder pages, and in fairly tiny panels by today’s standards when the “decompression” movement and the desire of artists to sell impressive looking figurework at conventions has widened out panels and trimmed the usual number of them on a page enormously, Gil delivers a sense of breakneck motion that really propels the story along. There’s nothing in it that anyone who has watched a handful of westerns hasn’t seen before, but the art makes it seem like it’s the first time any of it ever happened. Gil’s work is cinematic in an entirely different way: it generates a sense of movement and urgency that conveys verve, action, life. This isn’t something we’re seeing with remote reserve, like looking at a series of photos spread before us where we stop to appreciate the composition, lighting, mood and import of each one. These are shots of a movie spitting past us, drawing us in, making our viewership part of the action.

    Maybe it’s just me. Maybe no one else finds this work exciting. And there’s probably the argument that I’m so jaded from decades of exposure to comics that no art excites me anymore. Except this did. I do occasionally see other comics art that genuinely excites me. Just not enough of it.

    I want to see art that tricks me into believing in movement. Art with verve. Art that crackles with life.

    Exciting art.

    As a matter of fact, there was never enough of it. I’m not suggesting John Cassaday or anyone else start drawing like Gil Kane. But it wouldn’t hurt for more artists to create with an eye toward pulling the readers into the story, whatever that story might be. Sucking readers in isn’t the worst direction we could be taking right now.

    Or maybe I’m completely wrong. Maybe there’s tons of truly exciting art out there and I’m just not getting it. Prove me wrong. What comics art do you consider genuinely exciting, and why?

  • Just a quick political word this week: It’s pretty obvious now what tack the Administration is planning to take to regain the moral high ground in a mid-term election season replete with war and the shadow of war, new information about hacking election machines to steal election, news that the government was giving Ford Motor Co. job-creation tax credits while it was wiping out jobs, and questions of influence peddling rising over Congress and the Supreme Court: pornography. (Quick question: if, as Alito pressed in his elliptical confirmation hearings, a budding Supreme Court judge can’t discuss his views on any issue that might conceivably come before him on the bench – which translates to pretty much anything – doesn’t it follow that a Supreme Court judge also shouldn’t be accepting gifts, vacations, etc. from any party that might conceivably come before his bench? Which means pretty much anybody. So why do we allow it?) Like much of the Administration’s agenda, it probably wasn’t supposed to be made public, but the first salvo of the forthcoming “war on porn” (which Attn. General Gonzales did specify as an intended focal point of his reign when he got the job) was fired last week when the Hand Puppet and the Attorney General (the same one who opined, when White House counsel, that torture didn’t really constitute any sort of legal or ethical problem and was perfectly reasonable behavior) demanded AOL, Yahoo, Microsoft and Google turn over their search records. All of them. The reasoning for the demand was interesting. The Supreme Court struck down a law to control pornography on the Internet that was ostensibly intended to protect children from reaching Internet porn sites. Gonzales and the Hand Puppet wanted the search records – which would number in the hundreds of millions – for data from which they might generate a factual basis for the law, in an effort to reinstate it.

    Which means…

    … get ready for it…

    They had no factual basis for the law to start with!

    So they took a fishing expedition. In which they granted to themselves the power to track everyone who used the MSN, AOL, Yahoo or Google search engines to look for anything. They didn’t specify searches for porn sites. They wanted everything. Once that information became theirs, it became theirs. So if next week they’d decide to find out everyone who looked up, oh, hacking election machines to defraud voters, or peaceful methods to protest the Iraq war, that information would be sitting right there waiting for them. (In case you’re wondering, yes, the administration is spying on and tapping the phones of antiwar groups.) With the precedent set that when they want more data, the services should hand it over, without batting an eye and especially without making a peep about it to the users of their services.

    You probably know the rest of the story. AOL, MSN and Yahoo handed over the data right over, no questions asked. I guess you just don’t question the Commander In Chief in times of war, whether it’s a war in Iraq, a war on terror or a war on pornography. Google, on the other hand, told them to go screw themselves, forcing the issue out into the public eye when a frustrated Gonzales went to court to force Google’s surrender. Hasn’t happened yet, as far as I know, and Google insists it’ll fight the demand to the bitter end. As a result, Google has also upped their public reputation as a company that will do whatever it can to protect you. Yahoo, on the other hand, experienced a big stock price plunge, and, while I can’t say with certainty the two events are connected, the timing certainly suggests it. (No word whether AOL or Microsoft experienced similar hits, but I notice Microsoft’s name was missing from most news reports.)

    This may have popularly shifted to a discussion about how far the government’s right to snoop into the private lives of citizens extends, but it seems pretty obvious that this was intended to presage what may be pondered as a winning election year strategy pretty much guaranteed to be popular with the Republicans’ core constituency, which seems willing to overlook pretty much anything as long as their particular obsessions are catered to. (Democrats, on the other hand, are pretty much willing to overlook everything to maintain the fiction that theirs is the only possible alternative, which ends up making them not much of an alternative at all.) Fighting pornography is in some ways the perfect issue, especially when pornography is framed in the same sort of language as terrorism is. Microsoft and Yahoo both explained their willingness to cooperated with Gonzales was due to wanting to do whatever was necessary to “protect children” – with the implied corollary that not cooperating was tantamount to intending ill toward children. (Never mind that it’s really up to parents, and most authorities on the matter of Internet porn indicate that filtering systems and other parent-controlled controls are far more practical and effective than any handhanded government legislation could be, though the Hand Puppet has announced that such systems are ineffective and warrant government interference, a position for which there is presumably also no factual basis.

    Tens of millions of Americans may enjoy pornography every day, but it’s a private activity, which is why the Internet has become the perfect medium for it. It’s also why, faced with demagogue frothingly decrying pornography, virtually no one steps up to defend it; publicly admitting to viewing pornography is tantamount to pasting a scarlet letter on yourself. So I fully expect the Administration to position it as the key no-lose moral issue for the coming mid-term elections, a life raft Congressmen sinking under a tidal wave of corruption scandals can climb aboard, especially since, by the time they’re sent back to Congress to deal with the evil festering scourge of pornography, will almost certainly, with the ascension of Alito, finally have a Supreme Court that may not necessarily declare constitutional efforts to illegalize pornography but will almost certainly declare constitutional the President’s desire to snoop on American citizens however the hell he wants.

  • Last week, I launched a poll on comics published last year, sort of an unofficial award. I got lots of responses but I want more, MORE! And I’m too worn out this week to finish tallying the results. So I’m extending it another week. Vote, dammit! Here are the categories:

    Indispensable comics series of 2005

    Indispensable graphic novel of 2005

    Indispensable single issue of 2005

    Indispensable comics writer of 2005

    Indispensable comics artist of 2005

    Indispensable comics editor of 2005

    Indispensable comics publisher of 2005

    One per category, and it can be anyone or anything that fits that category. This isn’t scientific and anyone who reads the column can respond, though I’d appreciate it if you at least use a real-sounding name if for some reason you absolutely refuse to sign your real name (but don’t worry; I won’t be sharing those names with anyone, certainly not here). No need to say why or explain your choices in any way. One response per reader, please. This is just a small way to redress the balance and give a little extra exposure to deserving titles. Email in your responses by noon Pacific time, Tuesday January 31 if you want them to count.

  • Notes From Under The Floorboard:

    Congratulations to Josh Atkins, who was the first of millions to solve last week’s not-so-mysterious Comics Cover Challenge. It was quite funny (I have my sadistic moments, I admit it) to see many respondents jumping through hoops to figure out the real secret theme, because the first one that came to mind was so obvious it couldn’t possibly be the theme intended. Very creative suggestions, too. But, as Freud once said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometime the blatantly obvious answer is the correct one: all the covers featured characters in full face masks. (It occurs to me I should have thrown in THE FACE, a ’50s comic about a man who wears a monster mask, as a seeming red herring. Oh well.)

    Josh would like to direct everyone’s attention to the very worthy Lupus Foundation Of America.

    As reported in the Publishers Weekly Comics Newsletter by The Beat‘s own Heidi Macdonald, book distributor Bookazine has experienced enough (some might say meteoric) growth in their graphic novel sales that they’re dedicating special attention to them now, starting with hiring my old pal and former Capital Distribution co-owner John Davis to oversee the new operation. Congratulations, John. Keen observers have noticed how the traditional comics form has flatlined but graphic novels and trade paperbacks have taken off and continue to gain heat, and it’s great to see a serious alternative to Diamond entering the bookstore market. That could only help shake/loosen things up, and push forward the natural evolution of the comics medium. How far can we be from well-funded publishers sponsoring original graphic novel works on a regular basis and possibly to the exclusion of standard comics?

    Last week, I asked if the final issue of Avatar‘s FRANK MILLER’S ROBOCOP (which I adapted, it feels now like a couple decades ago, from Frank’s original screenplay for ROBOCOP 2, which was significantly different from the movie, with art by Juan Jose Ryp) had ever come out. Turns out it’s reportedly on the stands today! Coincidence or the power of the press? You decide, but I know what Dutton Peabody would say.

    Ran out of time and energy this week, so no comics reviews until next week. In TV, isn’t it interesting how, on 24 (Fox, Mondays 9P), the only organization with laxer security and background checks than the Counter-Terrorism Unit (which has a minimum of one enemy mole secreted within per year, it seems) is the White House? I’ve heard it said that people would freak out if they knew how close some things on 24 are to real life, and I’m wondering, especially in the face of a government audit that found that not one single division or operation of the Office Of Homeland Security is eptly run, if this isn’t one of them. Meanwhile, over on CBS, Tom Cavanaugh’s new show LOVE MONKEY (Tuesdays 10P), about a record executive with a passion for The Music looking for love in the big city, is… okay. A pleasant enough diversion, it’s basically a remake of Cavanaugh’s old show, ED, where the main character also began by losing his significant other and his high paying job in the same day, if Ed had stayed in New York City rather than moved back to Ohio and if he had been an A&R man instead of a lawyer. We may assume that, with young musicians guest-starring, it’s intended to skew toward a hip, young audience, but now I’m wondering if it’s even possible for CBS to air a show that doesn’t feel as though it’s intended for fatigued 45 year olds. The biggest shock of the show is seeing what former teen idol Jason Priestly, as one of Cavanaugh’s small circle of friends, looks like today. Oh, mama!

    In the DVD player this week: watching the new expanded box set of one of the best anime ever, THE IRRESPONSIBLE CAPTAIN TYLOR, a hilarious send-up of military space opera. I first saw it several years ago on what was then the International Channel (it’s now Asian TV, and according to rumor it’ll soon be unfortunately defunct, since it has often been a great source of anime like BLACK HEAVEN, DESCENDENTS OF DARKNESS, LICENSED BY ROYALTY and FUSHIGI YUGI) and it really holds up. I recommend it, but make sure you get the TV series and not the uninspired OVA that followed (and is also out in a box set now).

    No Comics Cover Challenge this week. Instead, we’re running another forgotten ’50s work, and you can smell the Cold War rising right off of it. “Rocky X Of The Rocketeers” ran in the final couple dozen issues of BOY COMICS, most often drawn by Norm Maurer, who was Joe Kubert’s partner at the time (if you look closely at Maurer’s episodes, you can spot panels where Kubert stepped in for him, or drew a character’s hands and things like that) and went on to direct THREE STOOGES movies and marry into the family. “Rocky X” was mainly interesting for a Cold War revival of one of the great villains of the ’40s, the evil conqueror and Nazi ally The Claw, who debuted in the original DAREDEVIL series published by the same company. “Rocky X” was also one of the few strips of the era that was formatted like a Saturday

    matinee serial, “rocketing” along at a brisk pace and almost always ending on a cliffhanger, a format Stan Lee would turn into a comics staple about twelve years later. This episode comes just after Rocky has won his first round with The Claw, and is notable mainly for early artwork from the great Wally Wood. (Though this arguably isn’t his greatest work, though it is rarely seen.) Enjoy.

    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?

    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.

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