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Issue #239

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Issue #239
  • THIS WEEK:

    PROGRESSIVE ART

    : where American comics art needs to go now
    LIES, DAMNED LIES, AND PRESIDENTIAL LIES

    : The Clintonization of the Hand Puppet
    FREE LUNCH

    : the best Windows applications and utilities that money can’t buy
    NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARDS

  • As a writer and reviewer, I see a lot of comics art. Some of it floors me. Some floors me with its sheer incompetence. Most fits somewhere between those two extremes, ranging from competent but forgettable to lovely but not quite brilliant. Recently, though, I ran across a small trove of ’40s art by Dan Barry, which set me to wondering: why don’t most comics artists improve?

    Dan Barry may be the greatest of all forgotten American comics artists. Some artists change styles; Barry was an artist who defined a style for a generation. Starting on “Boy King” in 1943, I don’t think he ever drew anything in comic books that could be considered a major feature (Airboy fans may disagree) though he was more prominent in comics strips as an artist on TARZAN and FLASH GORDON, but his ’47-’48 stint on TARZAN is probably pivotal to what I’m going to talk about. His early comics work shows a decent, but average talent, but in the three years between this AIRBOY cover

    and this VIGILANTE page (from ACTION COMICS) something obvious clicked on in his head.

    His designs, even in static panels, become extremely dynamic, and his figure work erupts past anything being done in comics at the time. (The Frazetta-esque qualities of his VIGILANTE art, with its sleekly muscular art and new emphasis on facial expression and form, seems evidence of influence one way or another, but it’s difficult to work it out. This came about after Barry’s TARZAN stint, and it’s easy to see the influence of TARZAN legend Burne Hogarth in both – and at some point Frazetta worked as Barry’s assistant, though I’m not sure when.)

    Within a couple more years, Barry’s art takes another turn, becoming sleeker, more sophisticated in design and dynamics

    until DC Comics (and certainly Julie Schwartz’s editorial office) more or less adopts his style as their house style, the same way the Kirby style became the Marvel house style ten years later. (Both remained dominant in their fiefdoms for about 20 years.) Past that point, Barry moves back into comic strips with FLASH GORDON, until a brief return to comics at Dark Horse in the early ’90s on their YOUNG INDIANA JONES book.

    Barry is indirectly one of the five or six most influential artists in American comics, since much of what he brought to the table is still influencing artists today, whether they know it or not. Despite a fairly small, obscure output. That’s what comes of being an artist that other artists steal from.

    But what interests me about Barry isn’t his influence, but how far his art advanced in such a short period of time: a clear, breathtaking progression and an indicator that Barry was always pushing for a way to do things better.

    You can see progression in most of the great comics artists. Kirby’s raw power is there in his earliest work, and with him it seems less a progression than a refinement, watching his style slowly spawn in his pre-superhero work until he hits an explosive crescendo in his first CAPTAIN AMERICA work, and from there it’s just a matter of chipping away the crudeness and emphasizing the power, until it hits its peak of refinement in the ’64-’67 heyday of FANTASTIC FOUR. Or take Gil Kane. His earliest work

    is, charitably, pathetic, even by the standards of the day, though if you look very closely you can see traces of Gil’s trademark style already taking root, though this is a far, far cry from it. But Kane is a sponge, obsessively soaking up influences and technique, obsessively working, pushing himself, and within a couple years his work has improved by leaps and bounds

    until by the mid-’50s he’s one of Barry’s key avatars at DC

    and by the ’70s he’s one of comics premier artists, someone who changes pretty much everyone’s perception of how action can be handled on the comics page.

    These are only scraping the surface.

    It’s perhaps prejudicial to cite them. The vast majority of comics artists of any era settled into their stylistic niches fairly early on and didn’t budge much. Very, very few made Barry-level advancements in a similar amount of time; like Gil and Jack, for most comics artists stylistic evolution is a matter of learning, experience and lots of time. But desire was also a factor. These were all guys who, one way or other, couldn’t simply put up with what they were. Whatever they achieved, they always knew there was some way they could do it better.

    We live in different times, I think.

    There was a time when the work was the closest thing to a reward comics artists got, a sense of accomplishment: finding some different technique or stylistic tick, pushing their art just a little bit further. Which in light of the material was probably more difficult that it sounds, and more than likely many of their peers viewed them as nuts. The only other reward was the paycheck, and putting extra work into something like The Vigilante when it was buried deep in the book and the editor most likely would have been perfectly happy with far less… let’s face it, in that milieu less work means more money because the time it takes to do a brilliant job on one page is the time it takes to do a passable job on two pages, which doubles your paycheck. On the other hand, most artists were unknown to the readers so your credibility with editors was the only parachute you had.

    Now names are a marketable commodity that often outweigh an artist’s real value to editors, and a lot of people try to get into comics more to push themselves as stars than to push themselves as artists. Not that there aren’t many really good comics artists as well, but a weird stratification has occurred in recent years as well, with most of the really good artists appearing on the scene with virtually full-blown styles while the more workmanlike artists also appear on the scene with virtually full-blown styles but never seem to get much better. There seems to be very little in the way of either stylistic evolution or developmental explosion going on, with anyone. (A couple “recent” exceptions: Bill Sienkiewicz’s overnight sea change from exceptional Neal Adams clone to idiosyncratic gonzo stylist, and Bryan Hitch’s rapid polish into his current high energy style after a long stint as an adequate but uninspiring Alan Davis knockoff.) Maybe a lot of it has to do with the way comics work now, with emphasis on a fairly narrow range of material at most comics companies, so the different types of stories that forced artists to hunt for new techniques and solutions back in the day are no longer available to challenge most people. Is it a commercial thing, that audiences and publishers now mitigate against stylistic change?

    When did art styles that never change much come into such widespread vogue? Even the artists whose work I love these days seem largely in a holding pattern. Does the “next big thing” in comics art have to spring forth full blown in order to be born? Where’s the stylistic shift whose power and audacity will make us catch our breaths? Where’s the evolution?

  • Your comments on previous articles:

    “Liked your review and agree with almost every point in your article about V FOR VENDETTA, comics and movie adaptations.

    Just think you forgot to mention one of the best adaptations of a comic – THE CROW – and how unfaithfull it is to the book, the same way you forgot to mention TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES.

    By some reason, when talking about movies and comics those are two I can’t keep out of my mind. There’s the “whore” aspect of James O’Barr that lead to horrible movies and a tv series. And the changes that Eastman and Laird allowed to be made with the turtles. In a comics journal interview Eastman even said something similar to your argument: “Okay, they’re changing the Turtles for the cartoon, but we will have the comic to tell our stories.” Obviously the Turtles aren’t Alan Moore, but it’s weird not seeing nobody mention things like this, or the fact that HELLBOY was produced by Mignola, and wasn’t 100% faithful to the comic, not only to the story of the first book, but also in a few “arrangements” that were done, to turn the movie more “attractive”.”

    “Producer” doesn’t necessarily mean anything (besides money) on a film; it’s no guarantee of power or control, and I’m not sure how Mike would describe his role on HELLBOY, but I suspect it was a consultant position. Studios in Hollywood are the ultimate controllers of the content of film, in nearly all cases. I didn’t mention THE CROW because I’ve never read the book nor seen the film, and while I’ve read a little TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, it always seemed more an amusing gimmick than a serious creation, and it’s hard to imagine how anything they’d be inclined to do in a cartoon would significantly alter the concept, as long as they kept the basic premise and the four leads. Besides a difference in creators, the difference between V FOR VENDETTA and TMNT is that the former is irrevocably linked to a specific story and the latter are not. It would be very difficult to come up with another V FOR VENDETTA story, amazingly easy to concoct a TURTLES story.

    “There are several significant differences between what Alan Moore did with the characters of Mina Harker and Mr. Hide and with what the Wachowskis have done with Moore’s own work.

    First, Robert Louis Stevenson and Bram Stoker (and Lewis Carroll and JM Barrie, while we’re on the subject) are both dead, and the characters’ copyrights have, to my knowledge, expired. No one is claiming that what Moore is doing to those characters is endorsed by their creators, and no one is falsely representing their support for what Alan is doing to them.

    Second, the only reason why faithfulness is not something that we generally expect from movie adaptations is because we have too often not gotten it. That is not the same thing as not wanting it, nor is it the same as not needing it. The very fact that adaptations of Moore’s work have done worse the further they’ve deviated from the original comic versions ought to indicate that, in his case at least, faithfulness in the adaptation (in so far as the different formats of comics and movies allows) is something that the producers should aspire to. Their failure in that regard gives us movies of poorer quality than they should be.”

    Mmmm… partly true, I think. But it’s still sort of dodging the point to say one is more permissible than the other because some creators are alive and others aren’t. That seems to me to be a convenient artificial standard. (Then again, what standards aren’t artificial.) I’m not sure there’s any benefit to not misrepresenting a derivative work as endorsed by the creator of the original work, living or dead, aside from certainty. (Though inarguably there’s a certain downside if there is misrepresentation.) In any exercises of pastiche or adaptation, the moral high ground is a slipperier slope than most of us would prefer to believe.

    “I haven’t been following the V FOR VENDETTA/Alan Moore “controversy” all that closely and have yet to see the film. I usually side with the original creator in matters like this, as I’d hate to see something of mine “adapted” into something it’s not. However the quote you have from the producer is indeed valid but I think Alan gets off easier in that he’s not doing adaptations. His stories are his, they just use existing characters. That may not be morally kosher but he’s not writing lesbian love scenes (or whatever it happens to be) and saying, “this is Lewis Carroll’s story” or “this is true to the spirit of what J.M. Barrie wrote”. Alan’s not writing a comic book version of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, but Hollywood made a movie version of V FOR VENDETTA. They’re not claiming it as their own, in fact they seemed to want to claim it as Alan’s (though I might be wrong on that). By taking his name off the project, he’s saying “this is not mine. This has nothing to do with me or my book” which may not be ideal but is the next best thing to the movie just not being made. That said, I thought LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN was a fun enough, though pointless and forgettable, movie, and I imagine when I see V FOR VENDETTA I’ll enjoy it enough, but won’t think all that much about it afterwards. Meanwhile I have the trades sitting on my bookcase where I can reach for them whenever I feel like it.”

    Again, yes and no. I think if you use any character in a story – Wendy, Dr. Hyde, Superman, Doc Savage, whoever – it may be your original story and you may not be specifying a continuity with the original work the characters are derived from, but you are evoking those characters and evoking an existing perception of them in some way, or else there’s no real other reason to use them. So it’s kind of a cheat to say, oh, they’re not connected, because, yes, they are. You’re in fact depending on your audience to recognize those connections (in LOST GIRLS and LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, Alan wears them like twisted badges of honor) to impart power to the work. The basic story of LOST GIRLS could easily have been done with original characters taking the place of Alice and Wendy, but the reverberations of the other works would have been lost, and those reverberations are what Alan is really writing about. I’m not casting any value judgments, I’m just reiterating we’re too inclined to pretend this is not the case.

    “I agreed with most of what you had to say regarding Hollywood and film adaptations of comic books. What I find rather depressing about the American movie industry – having been a film-buff at one time, but no longer (I’ve just plain seen too many) – is that Hollywood would implode if people stopped selling them the rights to their novels, short stories, comic books, plays, etc.

    The vast majority of Hollywood produced movies are not original works (even the ones that profess to be usually aren’t), and there seems to be little discussion of this as a failing of the medium. Even the majority of the films made by the so-called Great Filmmakers (Kubrick, Scorsese, Hitchcock) are adaptations, and those filmmakers rarely penned the adaptations themselves. Though comic books have their share of adaptations, they are usually viewed as a way to make a quick buck, and in no way are seen as defining the medium. Having just looked at this year’s Eisner nominations, I found only one that could be considered an adaptation: Kent Williams’ THE FOUNTAIN (based on an unproduced screenplay). I don’t think Richard Starkings’ lettering on CONAN counts.

    I suppose this just gives me hope for the still marginalized comic book medium (a well-spring of ideas to be plundered), when compared to the widely regarded “Art” of filmmaking. Perhaps if others stopped selling their ideas to the movie industry, and once the dust had settled, filmmaking in this country as a whole might improve. Sadly, for the last twenty-odd years I’ve paid close attention to American movies, the overwhelming critique has been “it wasn’t as good as the book”. People scoff at novelizations of movies, but give out Oscars to the reverse. Perhaps it’s time that changed.”

    I still haven’t looked at the Eisner nominations, so I can’t make much comment on that, though the Eisners can in no way be considered a cross-section of the comics market. But Hollywood wouldn’t collapse if source material vanished on them. They’d just buy more original screenplays. In many cases, “source material” is just a crutch to make financers feel comfier about backing movies; it’s a tradition that stems from the earliest days of movies when screenwriters were widely considered inferior to “real writers,” because if screenwriters were any good (never mind that then, as now, “hackwork,” or, at least, a certain level of polished mediocrity, was often enforced by the studios; talk about blaming the victim) they’d be writing novels. But they’re a pragmatic bunch in Hollywood, they’d figure out how to survive pretty fast, if that particular crutch were kicked out from under them.

    “‘The fact is, and I’m far from the first to acknowledge this but it should be said as many times as possible until everyone gets it, that the original work stands regardless of the adaptation.’

    I know this isn’t exactly what you mean, but what about instances like when Marvel “coincidently” gave the comic Spider-Man organic webshooters after the film came out? Stan and Steve’s (or John’s, or…) original stories haven’t been changed, but the original character has been, by association with the films. I suppose the answer is that these changes (like Batman’s adoption of a movie-esque costume) never stick.

    But yes, generally you’re still right. The original work survives.

    Oh, and could a parallel be drawn between the popularity of UFC now and the rise in gladiatoral combat in the dying days of Rome? I’m only half-joking, I think.”

    I think the popularity of UFC mainly extends from its being more interesting to watch than boxing. Anyway, gladiatorial combat was the main sport of Rome at the height of its wealth, decadence and power; in its dying days, Rome was awash with Christian moralism.

    The original character of Spider-Man is still there, in Stan and Steve’s stories. I can go to my bookshelf and see him whenever I like. So can anyone else, unless Marvel opts for a brutal purge, like pharaohs who condemned their predecessors to oblivion by erasing their images or any reference to their names. And all these changes do eventually get rewritten into something else. (And, actually, in the first film, the character of Spider-Man was probably closer to the Stan and Steve original than anything Marvel has done with the character since before, oh, I first wrote him.)

    “Liked your article on V FOR VENDETTA. I agree that there are formats in comics that don’t translate well. Dave Sim’s prose heavy CEREBUS probably wouldn’t cross bridges without great difficulty. NEXUS, inspired by Space Ghost and the like, on the other hand, could. Ultimately good comics films like ROAD TO PERDITION, BATMAN BEGINS and AMERICAN SPLENDOR are good because the filmmakers had respect for the source material to begin with. Rodriguez was in such awe of Frank Miller he signed him on as co-director putting his own status in jeopardy with the academy, which he finally left to direct with Frank the comics faithful SIN CITY, using Miller’s drawings as storyboards.

    Looked at an issue of Business Week (March 27th) and caught an article on Virgin, You probably already know about this deal but thought I would include it: ‘…now Branson and Virgin Comics chief executive Sharad Devarajan are sketching out grand plans. they hope to build India into a multibillion dollar comics market by plying its under-20 population of 500 million with mythic tales. And there may be huge opportunities for export to the West. Seven titles are due out in the U.S. Britain, and India. Even animated movies and TV shows are on drawing boards in Banagalore… Virgin’s quick entry into comics spotlights one of the most intriguing shifts in business today. Speed is emerging as the ultimate competitive weapon…'”

    What, like amphetamines?

    I doubt there’s any comic that can’t be made into a movie if someone wants to badly enough. Somewhere even in CEREBUS there must be a fairly self-contained chunk that could be shaped into a two-hour film. But anything’s going to change across media; commercial demands aside, there’s a difference in plastic qualities and possible techniques. I’m ultimately not sure, either, how much “respect” enters into it. I have no doubt, for instance, that the Wachowskis had the utmost “respect” for V FOR VENDETTA, or that they were as faithful to the source material as they felt they could be. There are a lot of bad comics movies where there’s no sign the filmmakers meant any “disrespect” to the comics creators. We tend to reduce these things to fairly cut and dried scenarios – part of it, I think, is our longtime certainty that everyone else in the world looks down on the medium, which is certainly no longer the case in Hollywood at least, and I doubt many people anywhere have particularly negative feelings toward comics (or, at least, “graphic novels”) anymore – but they rarely ever are.

    “It may be that comics don’t translate as well to film as prose, because we’ve already seen the images, that actors simply can’t duplicate (non CGI). Same with speeches, that work in a panel of dialogue, but fail in real time. After reading Kirby comics as a kid, I’ll always feel that I know how those characters should move, and as an adult, won’t be surprised when the films can’t match my imagination.

    As far as being disappointed in the changes done for a work for film, I always think of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who never seemed to like any Tarzan films, but took the money, kept the rights, and set up a mini empire for his heirs. Very little of Ian Fleming’s James Bond ever showed on the screen, but he probably wouldn’t have cared. Neither of these were great artists, but they did know the difference between art and commerce.

    A good book, comic or otherwise should stand alone, not simply be source material. Even a bad film will probably bring someone to the original. THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, with the panels filled with minute details (like a Kurtzman MAD) could only really work as a comic book. Done any other way, it’s only a sketch.

    I can’t blame Alan Moore for being upset about the way his ideas are being presented, anymore that I could recording artists who don’t want their work sampled. I had nothing to do with the Beatles recordings, but have left rooms to avoid hearing The Grey Album, or The Beatles, or other versions of their songs. However, if he doesn’t own the rights, there’s not a lot he can do about it. Or, sometimes, even if he does. It’s hard to know what the creator of character might think of his children licensing the charter after his death.”

    To that extent, Alan is dead right: if you don’t want to see your creations licensed to other media and sent out of your control, if you don’t want to see other people working on your characters, don’t sign any contracts that make that possible. On the other hand, if you do sign the contracts, Burroughs had it dead right. Ride the wave and get on with your own work.

  • It’s funny how quickly standards can erode. Eight years ago Congressional Republicans were so incensed about catching the President in a lie they insisted on impeaching him. Now the President gets caught in a lie and all they can do is stumble all over themselves trying to rationalize it away.

    Not that the current administration hasn’t been built on a tissue-thin mountain of lies, most of which were easy to deconstruct pretty much on sight, but most Americans, not to mention the Democrats and the press, flush with the “New Patriotism” (which in a lot of ways bears an unpleasant resemblance to the Old Fascism, but that’s something else everyone’s supposed to have enough manners to not mention, as long as the resemblance doesn’t become too pronounced), were disinclined to look. Bad for the war effort, y’know. Disloyal. The most easily disprovable pile of lies were those the administration used – cherrypicking data from intelligence agencies while dismissing anything contradicting their thesis, and using those intelligence agencies both foreign and domestic as beards to introduce self-serving fabrications from various “assets” around the world – to justify the invasion of Iraq, which, if we can believe polls, a majority of Americans now believe was a big mistake. (No kidding; nice of everyone to come to that conclusion now. As I saw Joe Biden explain the other day, the big problem of pulling out of “don’t say it’s a civil war!” Iraq now isn’t how the Shi’ites and Sunnis will carve up the country but how Turkey and Iran will carve it up. While the Kurds get screwed over again.) Much of the lying was done via innuendo – NATIONAL ENQUIRER as foreign policy – with the White House suggesting that Saddam Hussein was in bed with the 9/11 conspirators (he wasn’t) or that he was prepping a nuclear program with missiles that would be able to reach America (he wasn’t), then pulling cheesy “We never said that” schoolyard crap when called on it, then saying it again five minutes later. (The Dick practiced this with a flourish.) The Hand Puppet called for war because Saddam Hussein was flouting international inspectors and he still claims that as the rationale for his “difficult decision.” (March 21) But even at the time, the inspectors were telling a completely different story: of the 300 sites they inspected, only on one occasion was there any delay in being allowed into a site, and at no time did they give Iraqis prior notice of their schedules.

    Which, when you think about it, might have a lot to do with why the United Nations didn’t find the case for war all that compelling.

    Not surprisingly, the lies no one wants to talk about led to the lie that got thrown in our face. The short version: when claims that Saddam was trying to buy fissionable material from Niger surfaced, former American ambassador Joseph Wilson was dispatched to investigate. His conclusion: the story was a complete fabrication. His report left the Administration with some warmongering egg on their face, since it undermined one of the main tenets of their war. Shortly thereafter, Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was outed in the press as a CIA field agent, something which, according to a law passed in the ’70s, was a federal crime equivalent to treason.

    Again, it was a National Enquirer type of stunt that served no purpose, unless it was to harass and punish Wilson. (By extension, it could also be construed as a warning to anyone else connected to the CIA who wished to counter Administration war premises, since there were many in the CIA becoming increasingly vocal about how the intelligence they gathered had been massaged and combed by Administration policymakers.) Not surprisingly, when the inevitable investigation into the leak began, suspicious eyes turned toward the White House.

    Whereupon the President announced, in quite plain English, that he not only didn’t condone nor know anything about the leak, but when the leaker’s identity got discovered the Hand Puppet himself would make sure that person was punished.

    Cut to last summer, after the investigation sent NYT press whore Judith Miller, who had used her considerable clout and non-existent investigative abilities to transmute every lie, rumor and innuendo the Administration spewed out in the months leading up to the Iraq invasion into “printed truth,” off to jail for refusing to reveal her sources for the Valerie Plame story. (That pundit Bob Novak, who also revealed the Plame story, was no packed off to a cell suggests he sang like a diva to the grand jury.) The Times released her notes to get her out of jail, and America was treated to the revelation that the big mouth in question was the Dick’s chief of staff, “Scooter” Libby.

    Last week, we found out “Scooter” did some singing of his own, revealing he was ordered to release the Wilson-Plame story by his boss The Dick, who got his orders from…

    The Hand Puppet.

    Who is on public saying he didn’t know who was behind the leak.

    The White House, probably hoping the whole thing will blow over, isn’t denying it.

    Watching Republicans respond has been interesting. The Attorney General, who, you may recall, was previously the Hand Puppet’s personal legal counsel and whose main interest is crusading against pornography, pretty much stated the official view of the Justice Department is that the President can interpret any law any way he likes. A perk of the office, I guess. Specifically he stated that the President can declassify any document he wants to.

    Which is true, if procedures are followed. Which they weren’t. (Furthermore, he didn’t declassify the document, only the part of it that was of the most political use to him at the time.) And if he had declassified the Plame document, why deny he knew anything about it? Why sneak it out under cover of darkness? Why declassify it at all? The lesson of Nixon is that the President is not allowed to use the power of the office to prosecute a personal political agenda. And “the President is above the law” is pure Nixon. (Who was, we should recall, brought down by members of his own party, not the Democrats.)

    We tend to remember the Clinton impeachment as being about sex with Monica Lewinsky, but the moral mavens of Congress at the time eagerly refuted any accusations of a witch hunt by intoning that it’s not the sex Clinton was impeached for, it was lying about it. The difference between Clinton and the Hand Puppet, some Republicans now say, is that Clinton lied under oath.

    It’s an interesting argument. If you follow the logic, it suggests there’s nothing wrong with politicians lying, and nothing should be done about it. As long as it’s not under oath. In fact, it suggests we should assume they’re lying unless they’re under oath. By that logic, we can assume that the Hand Puppet and the Dick lie every time they say something when not under oath, which goes a long way toward explaining the enormous resistance this White House has had to the President or Vice President giving testimony in any venue (like, say, the tepid investigation into 9/11 that the White House tried several times to scotch) where an oath is required.

    But for guys who make a lot of noise about wanting to follow the “Founding Fathers’ intent” when interpreting the Constitution, Congressional Republicans conveniently ignore the fact that impeachment was intended to remove those who proved themselves untrustworthy or otherwise unfit for high office, not specifically those who can committed a prosecutable crime. Not that this is surprising, especially from the House, which long ago voted that only members of the House, not independent persons or organizations, would accuse other members of ethics violations, and none of them do because it’s, again, bad manners. In fact, we’re to the point, with the recent disclosures about graft from lobbyists and other forms of Congressional corruption, that if untrustworthiness becomes a standard for impeachment, they’re all in trouble.

    But there’s a slight possibility we may yet see an impeachment over the Libby revelations, as the likelihood of the Democrats reclaiming Congress in November increases marginally the more the Hand Puppet’s standing with the American public erodes, and the more the Republican-controlled Congress spends like drunken sailors. Of course, that depends on the Democrats, which is where the prospect falls apart, but at least there’s a slim chance of a politically exciting 2007. Our booby prize, in any event, is a culture of deliberate deception where manipulation is lord, accountability is fantasy and the right kind of manners are far more important than truth.

  • As I’ve mentioned a few times before, there’s some damn good software out there. Free software, as it turns out. You may recall back in October, I finally built myself a new computer and switched to Windows XP, which, while not perfect, is a vast improvement over earlier versions. I’ve had it lock up on me once or twice, but only when I’ve overloaded it with programs that demand a lot of memory. (With a gig of RAM on my rig, I could easily get by with a second gig, though it’s not usually an issue.)

    But the changeover demanded a lot of program upgrades. Computer programs are a funny lot, and it takes some maneuvering to figure out which work and play well with others. (I’m sure I’ll be inundated by email from Mac users telling me how all their programs interact brilliantly, and that’s fine, but I don’t have a Mac and am not likely to get one, and, at any rate, apparently Macs run Windows programs now, too.) A big problem with commercial programs, besides the cost, is that professional programmers are way too often like some college professors. When I was in college there were always professors who, though well aware that a full slate of classes was semi-mandatory, always behaved like their course was the only course you were taking that semester, and that you had absolutely no other objective in life than to read, research and write for their class. Too many programmers operate along the same lines: they seem to believe your system resources should be entirely dedicated to their program, and that if everyone doesn’t have all the latest technology they should, and they write their programs accordingly.

    In contrast, freeware authors mostly seem to keep their programs tight and low-maintenance, which doesn’t necessarily mean limited. Some free programs are better than commercial competitors, particularly among Windows utilities where freeware versions are often single license versions of programs sold for enterprise usage. In effect, they become free advertising for companies mainly focused on business clients. And some are created by programmers who just wanted to create great programs. These are the recommended programs that have ended up in daily usage on my machine (click on their names to hit their websites):

    Keynote: a great freeform database that lets organize notes and research (no length limitations that I’ve found so far, aside from system capacity) into folders and nodes. Very simple to use, with an attractive interface and a nice selection of tools that I haven’t had to try yet.

    PowerDesk: a file manager replacement for Windows Explorer, with a similar look and expanded tools and customization options. It does everything Explorer does, with at least one great addition: you can right click to a menu option that lets you quickly move or copy selected files to any drive on your system. Every so often, a reminder screen pops up to let you know newer versions are available for sale, but not often enough to matter.

    FireFox: hardly a surprise; it’s the best web browser currently available, far more customizable than the aging Internet Explorer, and snappier. I did switch back to Outlook for a mail program, after trying the FireFox companion Thunderbird, which started doing hinky things, and with the Office ’03 version of Outlook I could also dispense with Mailwasher, since Outlook can also be set to read headers off the server without downloading messages, which, as far as I can tell, is the least hazardous way to get rid of spam. Spam blockers concocted by other people tend to wipe out too many legit messages, particularly in my line of work. So I wouldn’t necessarily recommend anything by Mozilla Corporation, but Firefox works great.

    WinAmp: After a long slide, one of the oldest music file players gave itself a great revision and facelift to become the best player again, with an array of attractive skins and without the resource hogging of Windows Media Player or all the gobbledygook that most third-party players like MusicMatch Jukebox foist on you. Good Internet music access. The only flaw with the free version is that CD ripping to MP3 is only available in the paid version, but fortunately there’s…

    Exact Audio Copy: A CD ripper using the freeware LAME encoder, which has to be got separately. Pretty much complete setting control, and speedy accurate ripping.

    Faststone Viewer: the very expensive Photoshop may still be king for creating picture files, but Faststone is the best program available for viewing, organizing and doing light manipulation of jpgs, gifs and numerous other picture formats. Switching easily between file manager and viewer modes, it quietly includes a ton of tools for resizing, cropping, managing text, adding special effects and so many other things it makes cracking Photoshop next to unnecessary. Really great.

    Avast! Antivirus: I’ve been using Avast! for a couple years now, and unlike the commercial powerhouses of the niche, Norton AntiVirus and McAfee AntiVirus, Avast! has proven to be almost completely invisible on my system, and seems to stop viruses as well as any program I’m seen. (Norton in particular is a horror show of resource hogging and program clashes, like most Norton products.) I recently saw a test that ranked Avast! fairly low among antivirus programs, when using two month old virus definitions – which overlooks Avast! automatically updating definitions sometimes as often as three times per day. Pure set it and forget it functionality that works, which is why you want in a background program.

    Filseclab Personal Firewall: the last time I ran one of these lists I was using the popular Zone Alarm firewall, a stripped down version of Zone Alarm Pro, and got an email warning me that Zone Alarm did wonky things on many systems. It hadn’t on mine, but not too long after that odd little things began to happen and eventually I traced them back to Zone Alarm, which had to go. Shortly after, I ran across Filseclab, which, so far, is the role model for programs that work and play well with others. Again, past the learning curve that all firewalls go through, it’s almost completely invisible, uses minimal resources, gives you much more control and information than Zone Alarm, does an excellent job of blocking unauthorized access to your computer, and is particularly good in the small network setting I use.

    FoxIt Reader: Speaking of resource hogs, the more I use .pdf files, which are becoming more and more prevalent, the more frustrated I get with Adobe Reader, which locks up half the time when it loads and makes .pdf viewing a general pain. The solution is the sleeker, sweeter FoxIt Reader, which can do everything Adobe Reader does, only without the hassle.

    IzArc: compressed files are a fact of Internet life, and while Explorer (or PowerDesk) make Zip programs redundant, there are dozens of other compression systems, and IzArc opens almost all of them and writes to about ten. It’s one stop shopping for reading files other people send you. One caveat: when my cursor passed its context menu listing in PowerDesk, PowerDesk would crash out, forcing me to remove and reinstall IzArc without including it in the system context menu. No problems with it since.

    Eraser: last but not least, the greatest security utility ever: Eraser obliterates files from your hard drive by writing garbage over them numerous times, to CIA standards. It’s unobtrusive, fast, highly effective, can be scheduled or works from context menus in Windows Explorer (and substitutes) and Recycle Bin.

    All of these get the Permanent Damage RUS (really useful software) award, and I can say that from personal experience. In many cases, they’re more versatile and effective than their commercial counterparts.

  • Notes From Under The Floorboards:

    In response to demand – and thanks to those who’ve already ordered – HEAD CASES, my book of comics scripts featuring published and unpublished scripts, annotations and art, is now available in pdf e-book form at Paper Movies. Check there for details and ordering information.

    Scattered throughout this week’s column is an amusing ’50s crime story. I haven’t been able to figure out who the artist is, so if anyone has any educated guesses, let me know. I see a little George Tuska in there, but in early ’50s crime comics Tuska was one of the most imitated artists there was, so who knows for sure? Not me.

    Due to the vagaries of Outlook, I missed one entry into last week’s coming attractions list: Andrew Foley & Fiona Staples’ DONE TO DEATH, a five issue miniseries starting in July from Markosia Entertainment, $3.50@: “A serial-killing book editor out to kill a genre, one writer at a time. An incompetent vampire on a bloodhtirsty rampage through a world of faux-darkness. The most famous vampire novelist alive…for the moment. When the three of them cross paths, it’s going to get ugly, and it wasn’t exactly pretty to begin with. May the best monster win…” Sorry about the delay, guys.

    One other thing I screwed up last week: spiders don’t make webbing out of their mouths, they make it out of their butts. (Another pretty picture for a “scientifically accurate” Spider-Man movie.) I knew that, but in the heat of the moment conflated it with another bit of spider trivia: in order to impregnate the female, which bites the head of her mate after mating, the male of the Black Widow species masturbates into its own mouth then spits into the female and tried to head for the hills before she can figure out he’s there. Puts the whole Peter Parker-Mary Jane Watson romance in a whole different light, dunnit?

    I know there were other things, but once again it’s just too damn late to try to remember them. In the meantime, 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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