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Issue #240

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Issue #240
  • THIS WEEK:

    SECRETS BEHIND THE COMICS

    : how I learned to stop worrying and plot the death of Rich Johnston
    BORN A WOMAN: when comics and the culture of fetishism spill into real life

    WHY THE PENTAGON IS REVOLTING: generals against the new age of war, networks against decency, the FBI against a dead man, and the rest of us up against the solar wall

    MAILBAG: evolutionary art, the V FOR VENDETTA vendetta, Judith Miller & spilled beans, PDFs and other topics

    NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARDS

  • Secrets Behind The Comics, part 12,753:

    From the looks of my email, the cat is out of the bag so I might as well talk about it: yes, I will be killing off Rich Johnston in July. Sort of. See, a year or so ago I did a CSI mini-series (you know, the comic based on the hit TV show) for IDW, “Secret Identity,” that went over famously. (No, it has nothing to do with superheroes.) (If you want to read it, it has since been collected in trade paperback.)

    The interesting thing about CSI comics is that they do very well in bookstores, collected as trade paperbacks. They don’t do so well as comics in comics shops, which indicates something but I’m not sure what. (I’m open to theories.) Where we left it was that if IDW decided to keep doing CSI comics, they’d give me a call. Months passed, they didn’t, and I forgot all about it.

    Until a little before Xmas, when publisher Chris Ryall gave me a call. Chris had apparently been working on the problem a little, and had come up with an idea to get the book noticed in a comics shop environment increasingly geared toward huge multi-book crossovers: at a Las Vegas comics convention, the most hated man in comics, gossipeer Rich Johnston, is murdered – and the suspects are many of the most popular names in comics. Real names. Real people.

    I thought it was a pretty funny, totally unworkable idea: a permissions nightmare. Except in our tiny corner of the world, comics people aren’t really celebrities. You can’t use their names and faces without permission. But the funniest part wasn’t that Rich Johnston would be the murder victim. That’s a funny idea, but I don’t have anything against Rich. He brings a lot of attention to Comic Book Resources – what’s good for CBR is usually good for me – and despite the persona he projects in his column, he’s really… Well, no, that’s really what he’s like, but I don’t mind him. The funniest part was the idea of a really successful comics con in Las Vegas. This is the greatest convention town in the world, but it’s not really built for conventions geared mainly to teens and children. Not that there isn’t a lot of interest in comics here – as I’ve mentioned, Ralph Mathieu’s Alternate Reality Comics does boom business serving the UNLV area (tell him I sent you) and he’s only one of at least a dozen comics shops in the greater Las Vegas area, and there’s tons of interest in anime and manga among kids and teens that make a fairly well attended monthly anime club and a growing annual anime convention possible – but convention programmers don’t understand the weird rhythms of living here and program all wrong on top of everything else. (I think it’s possible to end up with a great annual Las Vegas con, but you’d have to start small and build, and everyone who comes here tries to start mammoth.)

    Then Chris told me they were lining up permissions, all kinds of people wanted to be involved (Joe Quesada, who has been vary gracious, was the big surprise for me), that Rich was gung ho for it, and one of the real pros in attendance at our fictitious convention would be the killer.

    Which, I have to say, put me completely over the top.

    I’ve been quietly working on this for a couple of months amid other things, and wasn’t aware that word on it was out until my mailbox started filling up, with either comments or notices about the message boards now running reaction threads. Seems the response breaks along two lines:

    1. It’s a bloody brilliant idea. (In which case, Chris Ryall deserves the credit. I’ll take credit for the story, he gets it for the concept and spadework.)

    2. It’s a cheesy stunt. (In which case, Chris also deserves the credit.)

    And they’re both right.

    Let me put a few qualms to rest, since these are the things popping up most in the comments:

    This is a CSI story first, not a story about the comics business with CSI cast members guest-starring. It’s as legitimate a mystery as appears on the CSI TV show and the characters stay in character. Just like the first CSI series I did.

    Yes, we do see the body. We even see the murder. So does Grissom. Rich dies a very public death.

    The professionals in real life who have had marked confrontations with Rich, either face to face or on the Internet, are not featured in the story, sorry. (That I know of. I didn’t ask everyone their personal history with the victim.)

    While there will be some in-jokes in the series, it won’t be about in-jokes, and the story won’t depend on them. You might not even realize they’re there. (Pretty much like most of the rest of my stories, which are loaded with them but you have to know they’re there to recognize them.) However, I will not be appearing in the book. (By the way, it’s too late to be directly involved in the storyline in any significant way, but if any professionals want to appear at the comics convention, drop Chris Ryall or me a line with a headshot, and we’ll see what we can do.)

    There are only three people in the world who know who the killer and the motive are: me, Chris and the killer. Rich doesn’t know. We’re not telling him. We’re not even telling the artist, Stephen Mooney, though he’ll find out when he gets the script to #5. Since I’m not talking, I know where to look if it gets out.

    As for “cheesy stunt”: sure. What did you expect?

    Like it or not, we’re now in a market geared toward cheesy stunts, serving an audience that responds to cheesy stunts. They’re the name of the game these days. It’s not my doing, it’s not Chris’ doing. It’s your doing. The name of the game on Chris’ end is to sell comics, and, as Marvel and DC will tell you, the first step to that is to get people’s attention. Me? It’s my job to tell stories. In a perfect world, sure, I’d be working exclusively on stories I generated, but I’ve never made a secret of being a hired gun. If someone wants me to do a story for them, and I can make it work on the levels I want it to work on, I don’t have any problem with making it work on the levels they want too. That’s part of the fun of being a professional writer.

  • Everybody loves a scandal, and one of the big comics “scandals” currently circulating is how artist Taki Soma was groped at the 2005 Mid-Ohio Con. The basic story is fairly sordid: Soma was among a group relaxing and drinking after hours at the hotel pool, which is common enough at these things, where one man in the group apparently took to tossing her, fully clothed, into the pool. More than once. Which is the sort of frat boy idiocy that unfortunately pops up far too often at conventions. (Way too many people have a bad habit of deciding being off their home turf is justification for being flaming jackasses.) The same man regaled her with tales of propinquity to comics industry powerhouses (which, when you think about it, is akin to bragging about knowing the captain of the chess team personally). By her account, when almost everyone else had left he fondled her and tried to undress her, despite her protests, until someone else intervened. I say “by her account” only because that’s the only account I have, and not being a witness I can’t verify it (though presumably others can), but haven’t any reason to believe she’s fabricating any of it. Soma filed a police report, the “participants” left the con for their own home states, and presumably nothing will be done by the Ohio justice system until one or more of the parties returns to Ohio.

    For many people, the juicy part of this isn’t the attempted rape but that the unnamed man involved is a higher-up in a comics-related organization, someone who should theoretically know better than to molest women.

    The story might have faded away but for women in comics support group Friends Of Lulu vice president of public relations Ronee Garcia Bourgeois taking up Soma’s cause with a fund similar to the Comic Book Defense Fund to help female comics creators pursue legal remedies for similar assaults. In Soma’s case, such a thing may be tricky; if the victim is from Minnesota, the alleged perpetrator from another state, and the alleged assault took place in a third state, Ohio, where does jurisdiction lie? In civil cases, either you pay a lawyer’s fees as you go along, or they operate on contingency, for a piece of whatever monetary judgment is awarded. For obvious reasons, if a judgment seems an unlikely outcome, lawyers become reluctant to operate on contingency.

    Over on her The Beat blog, Friends Of Lulu pioneer Heidi Macdonald reaction to all this was oddly tepid. Though supporting Soma’s struggles, she also mentions “anywhere men and women engage in social congress, the potential for assault of many kinds exists,” which seems to dismiss the issue as sadly par for the course. Which, to be fair to Heidi, it is, and she was largely reacting to the hand wringing responses of correspondents who seemed shocked, I tell you, shocked at the idea that such a thing could ever happen in our own back yard. If there’s a world-weariness in Heidi’s examination of the Soma-Bourgeois story (for the two stories are now linked), Heidi has doubtless earned it from decades on the front lines, and it’s hard to fault her reaction to the naïve kneejerk reactions that swirled around Bourgeois’ article.

    You have people demanding to know the name of the alleged perpetrator so that they can excoriate him at conventions. Of course, the virtue of a court victory by Soma would be that she could publicly name him without a retaliatory slander/libel suit, which even bringing a suit would almost certainly earn her. (It’s the first weapon in a defense lawyer’s arsenal in these cases: make the financial risk of continuing the suit greater than the plaintiff is willing to bear.) You have people saying the alleged perpetrator should be beaten up.

    Which is par for the comic book course, y’know. I mean, most of the comics sold in our market, no matter how much we want to dress it up with nice words and parent-pleasing moral messages, involve vigilantes beating up bad guys. While there’s a certain catharsis to be had from that in fiction, trust me, it’s not a world you actually want to live in. Everyone, of course, thinks of themselves as the good guy, so they’d ultimately be the ones doing the punching out, but if other people think of themselves as the good guy and you as the bad guy – you see where this is going. There’s a reason that sort of thing is neither legally nor socially acceptable, and to fall back on it is, well, the same sort of fratboy idiocy that started this ball rolling in the first place.

    But that’s hardly unexpected either. Which is the most horrific thing about Taki Soma’s case: outrage is a perfectly understandable reaction, but shock? Far from this sort of thing being unusual in comics, as many people seem to think, it’s hardly unexpected either.

    It’s not like we haven’t steadfastly built an environment for this sort of thing, particularly over the last 15 years or so.

    I’m all in favor of artistic expression, but is there any other medium that fetishes women as much as comics do? It’s a conundrum. On the one hand, writers should write what writers feel they should write, and artist should draw what they want to draw. On the other… man, this stuff has gotten flat out creepy. Female characters clad as scantily as possible and routinely trapped in an endless array of bondage poses, or with balloon breasts so large the character shouldn’t be able to stand up. (Check out the Phantom Lady on the cover of DC’s forthcoming FREEDOM FIGHTERS cover for an excellent example, or any number of books like PURGATORI.) An endless parade of crotch, butt and deep cleavage shots. Stories that exist as little more than episodes of sexual torture, theoretically “redeemed” by the “Red Sonja” ending.

    (Red Sonja’s origin, for those who missed it, follows her brutal rape at the hands of men with the blessing by a war goddess who bestows great fighting skills on her, the idea being that her humiliation has somehow ultimately resulted in her becoming a stronger person. We see this “myth pattern” – a woman’s humiliation and brutalization “redeemed” by heroic resurgence – regurgitated time and time again in comics since the mid-’70s and even in some of the responses to Bourgeois’ article about Soma, whose harrowing experience is being rewritten to amplify her “heroism.”)

    It is becoming nearly impossible to get away from the fetishized version of women constantly promoted in comics. Someone recently mentioned the new Dynamite Comics adaptation of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, a Sci-Fi Channel series that has routinely made some of the best, most innovative use of female characters on TV today. (Which, admittedly, isn’t saying much, though TV is far ahead of comics in the use of unfetishized women despite frequently falling back on the stereotype. Which also isn’t saying much.) One of the key figures in the series is Katie Sackhoff’s irascible fighter pilot Starbuck, and, though she’s a good looking enough woman, neither Sackhoff nor Starbuck come off as the traditional sex goddess. There’s a flawed realism to her looks that adds greatly to the character. (Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever even noticed her chest one way or the other.) But the Starbuck figure on Dynamite’s BATTLESTAR GALACTICA comic is a standard fetishized comics blonde, though they had an actual model to work from who is none of those things except blonde. And it didn’t seem to have occurred to anyone.

    I could dig up examples all day (and while I may specifically be talking about American comics at the moment, manga have nothing to feel superior about) but enter any comics shop and the case is made. Stories of comics shops that are modern variations on Tubby’s “No Girls Allowed” boys’ club (whence sprang the “Friends Of Lulu” name) are legion. I’ve had more than a few women tell me how uncomfortable comics shops made them feel. Too many people write this off as the shops being untidy or dusty, but it has nothing to do with that. There’s definitely a “No Girls Allowed” vibe to a lot of comics shops, and it’s not a huge leap from that to the “she’s asking for it” mentality toward women who enter.

    The pro world isn’t much better. Everyone knows how Colleen Doran’s complaints about her treatment by an industry legend was greeted, with pretty much the same “don’t talk about it, you don’t want to besmirch the guy” routine that initially met Soma’s story. Doran’s case, like Soma’s, is fairly mild compared to some I know about. I’ve seen editors at major comics companies physically or psychologically female underlings into dates and even quicky sex (not, I should add, in any of the current company configurations; these go back a few years, long enough to indicate this kind of behavior is nothing new to the business), while making it clear that any complaints would more likely end the woman’s career than the man’s. It’s easy to judge those women as not standing up for themselves, but the way the business was, while the man’s career probably would have ended, the woman’s almost certainly would have – because nobody likes a troublemaker. None of this is unique to comics, and people tend to brush it off that way, but there’s no excuse for it either, and it does feed exactly the culture I’m talking about.

    I know of a woman artist who, back in the First Comics days, was asked to a hotel room at a convention to discuss work only to find herself surrounded instead by guys and drinks. (She bailed out as quickly as possible, so there’s no way to tell if her instincts were right or whether it was just paranoia, but most women are aware too much paranoia is better than not enough, and in this case the promised work never materialized after that.)

    I’ve seen plenty of women professionals at comics conventions get casually pawed by plenty of men, some professionals and sometimes even fans. Soma’s experience may be publicized, and it may be more extreme than most convention gropings get, but it’s not unique and, in any case, how would we know otherwise?

    It’s about at this point I start feeling like Frederic Wertham, whose obsessive SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT legendarily spawned the Comics Code. (I say legendarily because it didn’t work like that, but that’s how it’s always portrayed.) Two differences:

    Wertham focused a lot on supposed subliminal messages (whether Batman and Robin were homosexual lovers, whether the musculature in a man’s shoulder was meant to suggest female genitalia), but there’s absolutely nothing subliminal in what I’m talking about.

    Wertham wanted a crusade. All I want is for people to think a little more about this.

    I’ve done my share of comics featuring fetishized women. Sometimes that’s an editorial choice, sometimes an artist’s choice. (On WHISPER I constantly had to browbeat artists into drawing her with fairly normal proportions, not to mention flat heels.) Sometimes the assignment requires it. (Let’s face it, if you work on a Brian Pulido book or a porn comic – and I know we’re only talking about degrees of separation here – fetishized women are part of the package.) Will I work on such books again? Possibly. Like I said, there’s really no getting away from them in today’s market. (Superhero comics have become pretty much fetishized across the board, with almost all signs of “ordinary humans” having vanished from them, except as cannon fodder.) But the question isn’t really whether fetishized comics will continue to be published. Of course they will.

    The question is whether they’ll continue to be the norm. Because the habitual fetishism of women in comics does represent a dominant frathouse mindset that’s infused into much of our culture, and the physical fetishizing is less important than the psychological fetishizing. (Technically, fetishism is a psychological act anyway.) Some years ago, the wife of a very well known comics artist told me what she hated about PLAYBOY, and magazines like that: not that the women in it are themselves fetishized, but that the message to men is that they deserve women like that, regardless of what they themselves are. The message of fetishized women in comics is the same, ironic but somehow predictable in a medium that routinely jokes about the inability of its readers and even its practitioners to attract women. It’s not a very large leap from that a quiet belief that the function of women is to titillate men, and once you’re that far it’s not much of a jump to Taki Soma’s situation and the situation of many other women in and around comics, most of whom never go public with their stories. And they don’t because they don’t want to be perceived as victims, or ridiculed and mocked (particularly if a revered name is involved) or they simply don’t want their careers to become all about that or lose their careers entirely.

    You can argue that it’s just a reflection of forces in society at large, but that’s no excuse. Comics are our business, something we can do something about, and the first thing we can do is stop pretending that much of our culture is predicated on fairly callous attitudes toward women. The second thing we can do is ensure that we never turn a blind eye when those attitudes are translated into action. It’s one thing to say you can’t change the world, another to pretend you can’t even affect your own little corner of it.

  • This is like the Bizarro world version of 1968.

    It’s been a long time since I’ve witnessed open revolt against the American government. Used to be common enough, back when the Vietnam War was on. Now it seems to be all over the place. What’s weird is who’s doing the revolting.

    Last week saw a number of highly credible retired generals call for the immediate resignation or forced replacement of Secretary Of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who was largely the architect of our Iraq war and subsequent peace policy. Rumsfeld’s policies were formed well before he ascended to his current throne, predicated on the notion – contrary to “traditional” Pentagon thought – of a US Army composed of tiny, devastating units that could be deployed with surgical precision on a virtually infinite number of fronts simultaneously: an army for an American empire. Unfortunately he chose to test his theory in Iraq. (But not without considerable cheating; the relatively small force of Army regulars he launched were buttressed by National Guardsmen and Army Reservists, in situations for which they were mostly never intended and little prepared.) As we now know, prosecuting the war in Iraq wasn’t much problem, with Saddam’s troops folding fairly easily. (Once we got in there, we learned why: contrary to our premises for war, they had next to nothing to fight with.) The peace, on the other hand, has been a disaster.

    As the Pentagon, it turns out, had predicted. We tend to demonize the Pentagon along with the CIA and the IRS, but the American military actually has a fairly strong tradition of following civilian control, which means that the military accepts the Secretary Of Defense as their boss and it’s his orders they follow. Which goes a long way toward explaining why career soldiers aren’t openly protesting Rumsfeld’s policies. The rest may be explained by career soldiers who went through channels to protest Rumsfeld’s policies behind the scenes no longer having military careers, much the same as CIA analysts who challenged Vice President Cheney’s reading of intelligence reports to cherry pick the data that supported the White House’s drive to war suddenly found themselves marginalized and ostracized, and waiting for the purge when Hand Puppet toadie Porter Goss took over as CIA director. The White House’s official stance is that the Pentagon could have had any number of troops it needed in Iraq, but the fact remains that when the Pentagon predicted the need for several times what the White House was willing to provide, Rumsfeld erred on the side of his own figures.

    Which led to the spectacle of several retired generals, whose careers are no longer at stake, calling on the Hand Puppet to remove Rumsfeld in order to get what’s laughingly called The Peace in Iraq to something even vaguely resembling winnable. The White House’s answer was sadly predictable: the generals just didn’t understand “the new ways” (this has been a Presidential chant since ’01 or so) and gosh darn if Rummy just ain’t the sweetest belle at the ball. Given the Hand Puppet’s now widely acknowledged practice of only paying attention to information carefully filtered for him by his dutiful staff – we wouldn’t want to him strain himself by having to consider more than one side of an issue, after all – one could hardly expect any other answer. (I notice they’ve started referring regularly to the suicide bombers and roadside snipers in Iraq as “insurgents” on a regular basis now, rather than the more generic “terrorists,” even if they still haven’t quite gotten around to saying “civil war” instead of “insurgency.”) It’s a thorny issue, really: on the one hand, if there were any good time for a widespread protest in the military about the way Iraq has been (mis-)handled, it’s now. (Rather, it was three+ years ago, but you take what you can get.) On the other, the Pentagon telling civilian authority to take a flying leap is a precedent that’s probably not in anyone’s best interest. But if the White House will not listen to its military advisors, and it will not listen to its citizens (various towns in my original home state of Wisconsin, not much known for acute liberalism outside of Madison, are only among the most recent of cities, counties and states around the country to pass anti-war resolutions), who will it listen to?

    A protest on another front came in the guise of ABC, CBS, NBC and an owner of ABC affiliate stations mounting a legal challenge against increasingly strict FCC restriction of what it calls “indecency,” a conveniently ill-defined concept that lets the organization run roughshod over the First Amendment whenever it chooses. The FCC’s crackdown on obscenity has mainly been a sop to rightwing nutjob L. Brent Bozell’s “organization” (the extent of his membership is unknown, but it’s suspected to be, in actuality, miniscule) The Parents’ Television Council, which mainly wants to return television to the infantilized level of the 1950s. It’s too early to imagine what will come of this smirmish, but it does put the supposedly anti-regulation White House at cross-purposes, which is always entertaining.

    Meanwhile, the Administration’s culture of secrecy is trying to break new ground. On the heels of the revelation that the National Archives has since 2001 (hmmm, wasn’t that when the Hand Puppet came into office?) been letting the CIA and the Air Force remove and reclassify publicly available documents, pretty much at will (now that it has been made public, the practice is supposedly coming to a halt), the FBI is now demanding the right to pick over the archives of newspaper columnist and muckraker Jack Anderson before the archives are turned over to George Washington University.

    I started reading Jack Anderson when I was a kid, and he was a strange cat, but his columns always made good reading, and were usually full of well-researched information embarrassing public officials, corporate heads, foreign dignitaries, even other journalists. Alone among bland text in the newspaper, his pieces were exciting. He was a guy powerful people quietly told secrets to, and if I remember correctly he had a special jones for then FBI director (or dictator, if you will) J. Edgar “Mary” Hoover. Anderson was considered dangerous enough that his name was high on the Nixon administration’s proposed but unenacted hit list. (And I don’t mean smear, I mean assassination.) Basically, what the FBI is claiming is that information Anderson might possibly have dug up at the very end of his career grants them the right to rifle through decades of his papers and pull anything they consider “secret.” (If that’s not their goal, there’s no argument for them not just waiting to look at the stuff in the University archives, along with everyone else.)

    In other words, they’re looking to save somebody some potential embarrassment. I wonder who?

    Finally, an interesting bit of info in the global warming debate came to light over the last week: pollution helps keep us cool. It’s been noted that in the period since global warming supposedly began, the world’s average temperature has only increased a degree or so, and if global warming were real the temperature certainly would have gone up at least double that.

    Turns out there’s finally a silver lining to 9/11. Something unexpected happened in the three days following 9/11. Air traffic came to a dead halt. The number of cars on the road in America dropped drastically. Suddenly, as winds cleared out the air, scientists got a look for the first time at atmospheric conditions equivalent to what we would have seen 100 or more years ago, because, for those three days, the emissions from burning fuel oil were all but gone.

    And the average temperature went up a couple of degrees.

    Turns out that while increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes the so-called “greenhouse effect,” increased pollution has been collecting far overhead to mirror a considerable amount of solar energy back into space, something ozone traditionally does, which is why there has been concern about a hole in the ozone layer. Which makes for another interesting conundrum: if the data’s accurate, is the only way to maintain our lifestyle the continued creation of significant amounts of atmospheric pollution, and how long would we have before one effect overwhelms the other?

  • A few comments from the readers, on last week’s commentary:

    ” Allow me to share a little on the whole Alan Moore controversy. In addition to Don Murphy’s comments about Alan altering the works of Barrie, Stevenson, et al, Moore has made something of a career of using others’ creations as the basis for various of his stories.

    Let’s look:

    Watchmen = Charlton characters

    1963 = Marvel characters

    Supreme = Superman

    Miracleman = Capt Marvel/Marvelman (also VERY similar to the novel “Superfolks”)

    League = well, duh.

    Top Ten = Various

    In these cases, it’s more than Moore (ha) using a familiar man-in-cape archetype. And even if he uses these… shells… with a wink and a nod, it’s still someone else’s characters he’s using. Moore made one of the SkySharks (ie, Blackhawks) gay in TOP TEN:49ERS. While I certainly have no problem with that characterization, perhaps the Eisner/Elder may have.

    I think Alan would be better off accepting that the films are not his work, and take the check and run. I know for a fact (off-record, please) that one of his CONSTANTINE co-creators benefited greatly from his Hollywood check.”

    Like I said, Hollywood, really, is a subsidy for the work you really want to do and is best approached in that light. Movies aren’t even really the work of the screenwriters. Screenplays are the blueprint, but usually someone else builds the house.

    “The quote has been attributed to a number of people, but I think it was George Burns who said “There isn’t anywhere to fail anymore.” He was commenting on the “success” of radio and the “death” of Vaudeville, but I think that it still holds true. In today’s modern, connected society, there is no longer a place where you can polish your act. No matter what you do – stand-up, acting, comics – someone is watching, and they have the ability to tell everyone exactly how good or bad you are. If you are bad, there are no second acts and all. if you are good, everyone now knows you as good for what you are doing now, so there is no incentive to change, even for the “better”. (And in fact, quite the disincentive to change, in a culture that only shows up to hear you play “Magic Carpet Ride” and don’t try anything from the new album, or else.)

    Even worse than pop culture, comics are getting it from both sides. Where they used to be marginalized, where you could labor in obscurity for years or decades, only to be “discovered” late in your career, comics are now hip, they are hot, and they are driving a great deal of the zeitgeist. Comic creators are the new rock stars, and no one wants to come hear a garage band.

    On the other hand, most of what we used to call “comics” – ie, anything that isn’t manga – has become quite marginalized economically. There used to be places where creators could labor in obscurity, even at the more major publishers. Even now, with so many more people publishing, the economics don’t favor slow starts. Everyone needs to be Brian Bendis and Jim Lee right out of the gate – ignoring for the moment that even they weren’t themselves from day one – and even comic book “universes” have to spring fully formed before a publisher prints their first book.

    (It may be a false premise, and certainly their are some indy success stories. But now everyone – creator, publisher, and fan alike – sees the brass ring of HELLBOY or SIN CITY and wants to be the next Mignola and Miller. Again, conveniently forgetting that they used to be ROCKET RACCOON and WEIRD WAR TALES.)

    (For alliteration’s sake I would have included Miyazaki as well. But he is treated with such sepulchral reverence that I don’t know if he was ever not-Miyazaki. Though I am sure I can find some Hot New Manga Creator that is actually pretty old. I mean, older than just being “new” to America.)

    I know you looked at art, but since I mentioned Bendis, I would be interested on your opinion of the evolution of the comic book writer. Is there anyone currently working who has transformed themselves to such a degree? Any historical examples? Can any writer really change their “style” so dramatically (and still be writing in the same field)? Can any writer even have such a defining style that we would notice the change (or are they all chameleons hiding behind the Artist)?”

    By and large, comics writers go one of two directions: they either begin as fairly radical departures from the norm and gravitate toward the norm as their popularity grows (usually due to starting as an “independent,” then finding themselves in the position of turning out stories for DC and Marvel, which haven’t really changed significantly in twenty to forty years respectively, so any “new styles” are ultimately reduced to a fresh coat of paint), or they start as traditional comics writers and stay that way. Very few become more adventurous or experimental as they progress; adventurousness and experiment are rarely applauded or reward in our business. It’s usually the slight variation from the norm that gets the most praise in American comics, not the radical shift.

    It isn’t true that there are no places to fail anymore. There are plenty of places to fail, and survive it, but those aren’t the places that anyone wants to be, regardless of how much benefit they might gain by lingering there.

    “Where’s the evolution? With the colorists, I think. With the advent of computers and digital printing, it’s been their turn to shine for the past ten or so years.

    As far as pencilers go, this was one aspect that I enjoyed tremendously about CrossGen’s books. They took mostly new and underappreciated artists and gave them enough time, money, and a studio environment to hone their work. I knew of Steve Epting, Paul Pelletier, and Jim Cheung before they went to CrossGen, but gained new respect for them after seeing their work there. Steve McNiven was practically untested when thrown onto his CrossGen book and you could see him getting more confident every month.

    Granted, none had massive stylistic shifts like Sienkiewicz or are likely to be as influential as Kirby, but their evolution was noticeable to my relatively untrained eye.

    From all the background info on the HELLBOY DVD by Mignola and del Toro, it seems like the latter kept the former very much in the loop with him constantly being on set and in the art department and such. I was very pleased with HELLBOY and felt that the tone of the comic was maintained superbly, even if some plot points were created out of thin air like the Hellboy/Liz relationship.”

    I know computer coloring has improved by leaps and bounds in the past few years, and I know colorists are highly underrated and don’t get anywhere near the credit they deserve – it’s rarely admitted how much coloring and lettering can make or break the look of a comic – but, man, if you’ve got to go to the support players to find evidence of advancement in comics, we’re in a lot of trouble.

    “I knew (although anyone could figure it out) that the Judith Miller thing would go all the way to the President. It will come back to him. Sooner or later. And then there’s the vice-president, and his meddling with the CIA. Rove testified, I thought, but nothing conclusive, at least so far on him? These shadow tactics were first used on McCain during the 2000 primaries. It’s good to finally see them come to light…

    All this amidst immigration reform. The most recent compromise fell apart because the hawks in Republican ranks cried foul. But it really doesn’t matter what they approve. Many are already maintaining it was more of a campaign ploy than a reality. How are you going to deal with 12 million people? Or the employers who make money on them? It’s Grapes Of Wrath all over again. It all comes down to enforcement, and without that, it’s all a bunch of compost…”

    It was pretty obvious the Judith Miller/Bob Novak thing went at least to the Vice President, and probably Rove. I admit to being a little surprised Libby fingered the Hand Puppet for it, though, as I was under the impression the White House shielded him from things like that. Whatever happened to deniability?

    “Two words: Stuart Immonen.”

    Good call. I came that close to working with Stuart once.

    “I’d put Damian Scott (upcoming SOLO artist) as some one who evolved in the public eye from Quesada/Pearson ‘fan’ to something very much his own (as if he’s viewing life thru a spy hole/fish eyed lens). Chris Bachalo evolved and continues to do so every time firming his hold on his fans (and fortunately for us, editors too) and losing and confusing people that crave clarity and simplicity and a-b-c-d storytelling.

    DC current house style is “solid,” harkening back to an era of Jim Aparo and Pat Broderick whilst giving “Special Projects” to artists who are just that bit too slow for monthly books (Carlos Pacheco, Ed McGuinness, Paul Pope, Kevin Maguire). Under great covers by the blessed – Dave Johnson, Stelfreeze, Pearson, Hughes – being approved (certainly until recently) by Mark Chiarello, you have the dullest looking books.

    Let’s be honest, unless one of you is a star, a special project means nothing in terms of career prospects. Andy Helfer and Tan Eng Ut? The best thing that can come from that is Tan Eng Ut gets a gig on Ultimate XXXXXXXX, gets a cover on WIZARD and can relax into putting more lines on three comics a year instead of great monthly books like Doom Patrol. What makes Lenil Yu a superstar and Tan Eng Ut the guy who needs Pat Lee (!!???!!) to do covers for people to notice his books. Fortunately we have actually got plenty to look forward to, from great people (glad I survived the nineties) and I just have to wait and hold my breath that the likes of Chris Brunner, Damian Scott and Rick Leonardi will continue surfacing on books as opposed to sinking into a funk with a bottle of scotch thinking about Edvin Biukovic and Seth Fisher.

    Not the most fluid monologue looking back at it but it’s frustrating to be a comic fan as opposed to a “insert character here” fan. I just want to see people doing great comics and instead popular artists are given carte blanch to invent their own deadlines while monthly books tick along to float the franchises.

    I blame WIZARD!”

    Everyone does.

    “Your approach to the subject of “progressive art” in American comics made me want to write you as it is something that I have witnessed too.

    I agree with the points you raise and think that the minimum evolution that seems to happen nowadays with most American comic book artists is intimately related to the overall mentality of publishers either mimicking the “big two” – Marvel and DC, whose main purpose is perpetuating trademarks – or somehow creating a Hollywood analog, which ends up being pretty much the same. From outside it all looks like a circus. Personally, I feel the situation you addressed is just another symptom of this oppressive environment. Where’s the evolution under this context? In better paper and production values. The content is just a vehicle for merchandise and movie adaptations that should pander to the mundane and vulgar as much as possible.

    Is it a coincidence that the few cartoonists to emerge from the American mainstream whose work and style is still evolving in an inspiring manner are artists like Barry Windsor-Smith or Travis Charest? Artists whose published work is sporadic and usually outside the current spotlight platforms as far as American comics are concerned? I don’t think so.”

    I do, actually, as there are a lot of artists whose work is published sporadically and usually outside the current American spotlight platforms but who really aren’t getting any better at all. Working outside “the system” doesn’t make work any more progressive than working inside the system demands that work be stagnant. Barry, for instance, has been honing his work for some years now, but the basis of his current style was developed while he was working regularly for Marvel, and you can see his style jump radically in the space of five or six years. If you look at his first X-MEN, then look at his last CONAN – and his current style really crystallizes in his final regular CONAN job, the one that introduces Red Sonya – they look like the work of two completely different artists. But take all the work he did in between, and it’s easy to spot the incremental shifts. I’m not sure he would have gotten there had he not been under the pressure of producing regularly. There’s really no connection between time and inspiration.

    “One piece of advice for dealing with PDF files (I used to work for Adobe) is to view them in Acrobat Reader itself, not in the Acrobat plug-in for the web browser. The plug-in is “optimized” for online use, so that it only loads a page at a time, sometimes making you wait between pages for the new one to load and render. I think there are also limitations imposed by the amount of memory available to the browser the plug-in is running in, and I’m not sure when the plug-in updates to the latest version which might be available from Adobe.

    If you know it’s a PDF you’ll be viewing, right-click on the link and use Save Link As (or whatever the command is named) to save the PDF to the desktop, then open it from there. I’ve had success doing that when the in-browser viewing would be slow or hang.

    I’m not familiar with FoxIt, but if it works for you, great. I suspect that it simply doesn’t deal with some of the more complex pieces of the PDF specification — most of which you’ll never ever encounter, so it doesn’t matter. Less being dealt with –> less problems displaying what it does deal with.”

    Thanks. I generally did download pdfs and read them locally rather than try to load them into Firefox, but I never had a significant amount of luck with that either. Acrobat Reader just doesn’t like me.

    ” I have yet to see V FOR VENDETTA but after reading about this debate I have no doubt it barely resembles Moore’s excellent work. I still can’t help but feel there’s a difference between what Moore did with some classic literary characters and what Hollywood did with Moore’s story. Something has to be said for the intent of the artist (or artists) adapting the work (and I’m sure like you said that the directors and screenwriters had otherwise good intentions when adapting comic books; except for Tim Burton who was on record as saying he never read a Batman comic in his life and seemed to care almost nothing for the source material). Anyway, aside from intent which can be debated in perpetuity, the difference between Moore and Hollywood is that one is a writer/creator (a single individual) and the other is a hierarchical, commercial organization with a long history of tired and seemingly necessary conventions. Far be it from me to speak about the evils of Hollywood (I’ll let Alan do that), but despite the best intention of the filmmakers regardless of whether the film is a good adaptation or not (its really a matter of opinion anyway), the commercial structure of Hollywood cannot be ignored. It is still very much guided by certain conventions and standardized norms which hinder true creativity, which is why a true comic book adaptation of the caliber we’re talking about (Moore, Gaiman, etc.) can never be achieved. Even given all the “good” comic book adaptations out in recent years, there’s still plenty of mediocre comic adaptations. Besides, how do we know something can’t be done in a film properly. Some of the best visionaries in film flauted convention and tried-and-true film standards. Perhaps the prose of CEREBUS could be adapted to film if anyone were daring enough to try. I think the problem is more our (lowered) expectations of the medium and what can (or can’t) be done within.

    Saying that Moore’s work can’t be adapted properly to film because the medium won’t allow it is just lazy. If Hollywood keeps putting out crap, or mediocre films that must fit some genre or convention, then people’s expectations will adjust accordingly and they will expect less of film adaptations. Yes, there’s always the problem of time (most films being two hours long), but if a certain story needed more time to be told, then why not use it? Peter Jackson didn’t compromise when adapting LORD OF THE RINGS with 3 three-hour installments which moviegoers flocked to despite the length. ‘If you build it, they will come.'”

    Unfortunately, most filmmakers don’t get to pick the length their films will run. Jackson was very, very lucky, plus he was adapting what was considered a classic (which conveniently had been pre-broken into movie-sized chunks) with a long, long history and what was perceived as a very broad fan base, so it was important enough to the bankers to appease that base that they were willing to invest in Jackson’s expansive vision. Why? Because they saw that vision as ultimately very profitable for them. V FOR VENDETTA, perceived as a cult item at best in its native market, was never going to get that kind of leeway, though the Wachowskis conceivably could have swung it had not MATRIX RELOADED and MATRIX REVOLUTIONS not been perceived as disappointments. If you think the V film barely resembles the graphic novel, you’re drastically underestimating the film. In some ways it’s obsessively faithful. That doesn’t change the fact that the density of the graphic novel simply cannot translate into a two hour film.

    ” I agree totally with Steven’s assessment of comic artists remaining stagnant. The one notable exception that was not mentioned (and is a glaring omission) would be Dave Sim on the often brilliant CEREBUS. Looking at the first few issues, it’s almost painful. Dave could not even have been charitably called good (and his writing was average at best). However, somewhere along the line, he got it. His lines became clean and confident and his expressions were bang on. Look at his Keef and Mick… absolute genius. This is an artist and writer that grew up right on the page in front of us.”

    The problem isn’t that most artists don’t grow up on the page in front of us. Most do. The problem is most don’t grow up very much.

    “Awhile back, I picked up an old issue of TWILIGHT ZONE (not the Gold Key version) because it had J.H. Williams III handling the art chores. I open it up and oh, my god is the art godawful! So Williams gets my vote as a guy who has radically developed his chops over the years.”

    I’m guessing Dave Sim and J.H. Williams are the object lessons for all the artists now grumbling out there, right?

  • Notes From Under The Floorboards:

    Have to make this quick, but first I want to thank all those who ordered HEAD CASES, my PDF-published script collection, in the last week. I encountered a glitch in the “first edition,” which delayed delivery but should be corrected by the time you read this, so your copies are finally going out sometime today. Those interested in ordering HEAD CASES, which includes notes and some art as well as almost 300 pages of comics scripts, please go to my PAPER MOVIES site for ordering information.

    I forgot to mention it last week, but reviews of PAT NOVAK FOR HIRE, a tongue-in-cheek hardboiled mystery Tom Mandrake and I recently did for Moonstone Books, can be found here and here. Badger your retailer for a copy, but if they won’t help you, you can order PAT NOVAK FOR HIRE straight from Moonstone. The short version: them what read it love it.

    By the way, here’s another wacky ’50s crime story from unknown creators. This stuff cracks me up.

    Finally, as usual, 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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