Issue #23

Spent the last week rebuilding my computer. For those who are scared to look into their rig's guts, nowadays pretty much everything is snap-and-play, as far as hardware goes, as long as you have some simple accoutrements, like a good set of non-magnetic tools (mainly screwdrivers; you can buy this cheap at Radio Shack) and a static-killing wristband, which has a cable that clips to metal to ground you out, so no surprise shocks fry any sensitive equipment. (As with most things, the more sophisticated computer equipment has become the easier it is to destroy – but, as with most things, destruction usually requires malice, carelessness or stupidity.) Installed a big new C: drive and a new videocard, mainly. Should've been a four hour operation, tops.

Due to financial considerations – I have way too many things to spend my money on as it is – I've been living with basically the same rig since 1995. It's a solid rig, good for word processing (my main requirement) and not so good for many other things, particularly graphics intensive applications. The problem with the computer market today is it makes it very difficult for the user to stand still. Computer technology improves drastically every couple of years or so, and in order to stay abreast of software applications you have to keep up with hardware changes, because virtually no computer software developer says "Oh, here's a new machine with a sophisticated CPU that processes commands much faster, combined with a huge capacity hard drive, I think I'll make the program I'm working on smaller and compatible with as many machines, and make it execute much more quickly." No, they look at the new real estate and imagine how much of it they can fill. So programs that once installed with six floppy disks now install with two CD-ROMs. Not that programs don't usually increase sophistication and features along with size, but what all this means is that in order to use a lot of new programs, you need to keep up with the latest hardware changes.

I upgraded my memory chips a few months back, trying to make Photoshop effective enough that I could do my own lettering on computer, but I need a new chip and motherboard to make that practical. Same with video editing or Flash animation. These were all once specialized functions that now virtually anyone with the right equipment can handle. Lettering and coloring are of particular concerns; it wouldn't surprise me in the least if the next ten years see the rise of the writer-letterer (suggested by Roger Stern back in '78 when he was an editor at Marvel coping with writers who didn't seem to understand how much copy could actually go on a page) and see most artists taking over their own coloring, as the tools become more available. And "the right equipment," once machinery dedicated to a specific task that might cost tens of thousands of dollars (certainly in the case of video editing), now means a computer between $2500-$3000. Which, all things considered, is ridiculously cheap. Unless you don't have $2500-$3000 to toss at it. In which case you make do as I do, picking up equipment piecemeal, and keeping your eye on the computer literature to follow what's considered "state of the art" today, and where that translates to my particular needs. (While CPUs and motherboards are relatively cheap these days, replacing mine would also necessitate replacing the case and the memory chips, which probably tells the more computer-astute among you just how old my core equipment is.)

Well, replacing the equipment was a snap. The hard drive came with a floppy-disk based utility that easily installed, formatted and partitioned the drive into a small area for program files and a much larger area for data, so that took about twenty minutes, shorter than it took to screw the drive into place. The weird part was that I couldn't get DOS to recognize my CD-Rom drive, which was necessary in order to install a clean version of Windows ME, my current operating system. Called up my tech support people – everyone should be friends with someone who works with computers for a living – and ran through a series of ineffectual "solutions." Finally bumped my new C: drive down to the D: drive and used the old operating system to access the CD-Rom drive, then dubbed over the contents of the WinME CD to the E: drive. (I kept the original second hard drive in the machine.) Then it was yank the old C: drive out, reset the jumpers and put the new C: drive back into place and do the same with the E: drive (turning it into the D: drive), then, after a couple of false starts that ate up a couple more hours, installed the operating system.

Followed by a couple days of reinstalling all the programs I was using (involving, among other things, calling Microsoft to get new authorization codes for my Office XP applications... a somewhat more pleasant process than it's been made out to be).

Good thing the last week wasn't a particularly active one of the comics business. (Oddly, it was an active week for film producers sniffing around some of my as-yet unpublished projects.) There are few easier ways to kill a few days. Though it does get me thinking on a parallel to the creation of comics. A computer with the flashiest hardware imaginable might be cool to look at but it's really no good if you don't have decent software to go with it. The best software in the world is useless – maddening, even – if you don't have hardware capable of running it. And neither means squat if you put them together but still don't get the results you want.

In comics, art is the hardware and writing is the software. It really doesn't matter how good either is if the other doesn't do the job. Sometimes it's a struggle to figure out what's working or not and why, and finding the best way to fix the problem. But it's not necessary to be or hire an engineer to get it right. It just takes a little effort.

The computer's running beautifully now, by the way. But it still needs a new CPU and mobo.

Was having a conversation with an editor last week (in the midst of the computer chaos) about a forthcoming project – more on that at a later date – and we were discussing the problems of issuing new work in today's market. Aside from things like DC's BATGIRL: FIRSTS (drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz and Terry Moore and coming out in May), most of what I do these days isn't connected to existing product. But we live in an age when most new product is doomed for no better reason than retailers cling to known commodities, to the point where Marvel has renamed Kevin Smith's BLACK CAT series to turn it into a Spider-Man book, and potential customers never hear about the work in the first place. (I'm still deluged by people who weren't aware of DAMNED when Wildstorm published it and want to know where to find it – it looks like Mike Zeck and I will soon have something to announce about that – and I'm getting the same now from people who want to know when they should start pestering their dealers about my forthcoming Avatar series, MORTAL SOULS, unaware solicitations on the first issue were last month.)

So the questions are: what's the best way for publishers or talent to make you aware of upcoming projects so they won't slip by unnoticed? Just what does it take to get you interested enough in an unfamiliar product to be willing to shell out money to buy it? If you could pop over to the Permanent Damage Message Board with your answers, I'd appreciate it.

Last week's bit on "helping" would-be writers drew a couple of interesting responses. One came from several people, along the lines of "how many times are you going to rehash that?" Answer: Seems I'm forced to every so often. But one reader suggested a potential solution to the problem. As longtime readers know, I'm not particularly optimistic about the Internet as a delivery system for comics, at least not in the short run, and I believe its best current use is for promotion.

The suggestion: writers and artists can use Internet publishing as a cheap alternative to self-publishing. A self-published comic book can cost upwards of thousands of dollars (cheap by general media standards, but, again, not cheap enough if you don't have it) while a website can be had for $10/month or less.

There are still problems, of course. Getting editors to read your site can be a pain (I don't generally read online comics, for instance, because I'm still on a 56k dialup, which really translates to a 41k dialup, so loading pages large enough to read easily is a real timewaster for me) but no more of a pain, really, than getting them to read anything. The biggest problem currently will remain the biggest problem and will most likely be exacerbated by "web showcasing": people putting their work out there before it's ready for display. Caution should be the byword: while bad early work won't necessarily kill your chances, it won't improve them either. Don't overlook the networking possibilities of the web either; if you're looking for an artist or writer to collaborate with, the Internet gives you a way to do it. There, as well, don't be too eager. Shop around for what suits the material you want to do – remember what I said about matching hardware and software – then do it as well as you possibly can, and remember: criticizing someone else's work is about the easiest thing in the world (the only thing easier is mistaking your obsessions for genius) while being your own toughest critic is about the toughest thing. Be at least polite with the former and rough as hell with the latter, because 1) you're probably not as good as you think you are either, and 2) you never know who's going to get there before you do.

I reviewed ABSENCE OF INK THEATER (Absence Of Ink Comic Press, Box 875, Lincoln CA 95648; $2.99@) a few weeks ago, and singled out the Depression Era-based series "Castaways," written by Rob Vollmar and drawn in a wonderfully expressive style (reminiscent of both Mexican muralists and woodcut artists) by Pablo Callejo, which prompted them to send me the rest of the series in photocopy. Sometimes it's the strongest material that's the most frustrating. Not because "Castaways" is bad – it's one of the strongest works I've read in a long time, focusing on various aspects of the harshness of life in rural '30s America – but because it quits too soon. I can sympathize with Vollmer and Callejo's desire to bring the story to a conclusion – it's a smidge too pat, but them's the breaks – but I can't help feeling there were more stories to milk out of this arc before wrapping it up. Keep your eyes open for the CASTAWAYS collection, and for other Vollmer (and/or) Callejo work.

TRIPLE NOIR THEATER (821 N Thomas St., Altus OK 73521-2837; $2) is an overpriced mini-comic that's a bit of fun. It's hard to tell whether the creators, Johnny Gonzales and Floyd Choat, have their tongues in cheek or whether they think they're doing serious work, but their tales of hitmen and private eyes (there are three in this slender volume) read (and look) somewhat like the SIN CITY Frank Miller produced in his boyhood. Not bad, for a start, though, as I said, at $2 it's pricey.

Not so much fun but considerably less expensive (and expansive) is Tony Goins' GUNS OF THE NIGHTCHILD #3 (50¢), basically a sparse vignette about a vigilante trying to solve a murder while being stalked by two killers. It's got a clever bit at the end and some of the layouts are nice, but it's too underwritten and the art needs a lot of work. Still, it's nice to see someone trying to accomplish something that isn't a pure knockoff, and all Goins really lacks (in his writing, anyway) is practice.

It's a week for revisiting. I already reviewed an advance Xerox of THE OCHLOCRAT (Comics Conspiracy, 115-A E. Fremont Ave., Sunnyvale CA 94087;$2.95) and raved up the art without knowing it was by my old pal Gerry Alanguilan, who has turned into a pretty good penciler. I wasn't all that enamored of the parody superheroics of Doug Miers' script in photocopy, but now that I've got the whole story in front of me, it's a brisk satire not of superheroes but of social mores, set in a media-drenched, instant focus group future where a freewheeling techno-equipped law-unto-himself controls the fates of virtually anyone he wants to. Surprisingly inventive, but I hope it's not planned to be a series, as it's the sort of thing that once you've got the joke, you've got the joke. Still, that never stopped Marvel from beating Spider-Man to death... Considerably less inventive is Comics Conspiracy's COMIC BOOK#6, written by Miers and drawn by Amilton Santos and Rob Lean. The art's all right but it's... you guessed it... a pretty ordinary superhero parody, the main joke being that the hero changes his clothes right in front of everyone, but nobody connects him with his civilian identity. Enough.

Last week when I said leave out the superheroes and do the strip anyway, I could've had THE CITY in mind. It's a series being shopped around by writer Dara Naraghi and artist Steve Black. The best thing about it is Black's very nicely painted cover, and he ought to consider focusing on painting because the interior line work is unsure, to say the least. THE CITY imagines a place where superheroes exist, but the main players are ordinary people reacting to the presence of the rarely seen superheroes, and to ordinary events. So what do they need the superheroes for? Naraghi has a nice ear for dialogue and a skill for writing slice-of-life stories, and THE CITY would be considerably better off without the distraction, which feels like Naraghi and Black felt compelled to add costumes as a sales come-on.

I reviewed the first issue THE INCAL (Humanoids Publishing, Box 931658, Hollywood CA 90094; $2.95) way back when as well, and it was, frankly, a headscratching experience. I since learned that it was decided in America to run the stories in chronological order rather than the original order of publication. I'm not sure it would've helped much. Now that I have #2 and #3, the story fills out some, and, like all Humanoids projects, the production is gorgeous (and full color, a rarity among the piles of black and white comics I see these days). Alexandro Jodorowsky's story waffles between callous ultraviolence and hippie gibberish like a French attempt to do a 2000 AD story but it teeters on the sheer illogic of the future society it takes place in, and the hero, aptly named John DiFool, comes across as something of a moron. (Jodorowsky and Moebius' MetaBaron is a bit player in the book, but he doesn't seem like the same character as in his own series.) It's an entertaining enough read, with good art by Zoran Janjelov and even better coloring by Dan Brown and Valerie Beltran, but I dunno. Three issues in and no one has even mentioned the Incal yet, whatever that is.

Probably I've gotten more mail over the past few weeks on my criticism of OZ (HBO, Sunday 9PM) than on anything else, with fans of the show rushing to defend it and others sadly (I know it saddened me) agreeing that it's wearing out its welcome. The last couple episodes were some improvement (though others seemed much more pleased with the singing bits than I was, though that wouldn't be hard as they didn't please me at all) and, fortunately, many of my direst story prophecies turned up unfounded. O'Reily's mom made it through the season unscathed, and Alvarez, at least, managed to do something genuinely good that stuck and didn't (at least not yet) turn into something horrible. But the season finale brought back that sense of treading water, with a couple superficial changes, one major killing (if, in fact, the character is dead; if Luke Perry can survive being buried alive, blown up and burned to a crisp, anything's possible), and seemingly half the cast in solitary confinement. Which could be a good thing, if they use the opportunity to totally change the prison dynamic while those characters are removed from it, but I fear most that'll come out of it will be a renewed determination on Schillinger's part to make Beecher's life a living (or, perhaps, dying) hell. I'm still not giving up on it quite yet because it's still better than anything else on TV, but that's pretty sad as well.

And better than anything in the movies. THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO I went to grudgingly, but not only has nothing popped up in the theaters in the past month or so to make me even remotely interested in leaving the house, but if ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY's Spring Movie Preview issue is an indicator, I won't have to bother until well into summer. When the most enticing offering is The Rock in THE SCORPION KING, you know we're in trouble. I thought last year was bad, but 2002's shaping up to be a virtual renaissance of by-the-numbers filmmaking. (My favorite premise so far is the thing coming out this week about the college kid who has to go a whole 40 days and 40 nights without sex! I suspect most college males go for a lot longer than than without sex, and at this point I'd love to go 40 days and 40 nights without even hearing about some stupid comedy centered around some ridiculous sex premise.) It's enough to make you get down on your knees and thank the powers that be for comic books...

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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