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Issue #242

WHEN GOOD COMICS GO BAD: waiting for publication, or something like it

I haven't decided yet, but I may be disappointed.

Not in the material. I've generally liked the 7 SOLDIERS arcs; they've had tons of great bits in them, and each has had a unique flavor, a tasty contrast to "universes" where companies seem to prefer all books to read essentially the same. The character revamps are, for the most part, far more interesting than their original versions. Only Zatanna's treads water (the series is entertaining nonetheless) and only MR. MIRACLE, whose "manifested psychobabble" storyline dragged through all four issues and made the inevitable resolution, not to mention what was really going on, obvious from about pg. 12 of the first issue, at least for anyone who grasps the concept of story logic. (Most "gonzo" series, which describes MR. MIRACLE, glory in their dismissal of story logic, but whatever else you can say about Grant Morrison's work, he has generally strictly adhered to whatever logic he set up regardless of how freestyle his stories may appear at first glance, which has been one of the strengths of 7 SOLDIERS.) On paper, the last two minis, BULLETEER and FRANKENSTEIN, looked to be the weakest concepts but ended up among the most interesting, with the Frankenstein monster as a Solomon Kane-ish modern day undead swashbuckler defending the human race against unspeakable horrors turning out to be the strongest series of the seven. Something like SHINING KNIGHT wouldn't seem to have much of a natural lifespan beyond the mini-series, but it's easy to imagine a regular FRANKENSTEIN series running a long time, particularly if the very underrated Doug Mahnke stayed with it along with Morrison.

(Since DC has from the start made it a guessing game as to which Soldier will die in the final battle against the Sheeda, if I were a betting man I'd guess the Shining Knight, specifically because she has the least obvious place in any aftermath. Of course, with the solicitation for the wrapup, DC has upped the guessing game: now, in addition to a death, one will betray the rest, two will cross paths, one will find love at the end of the world, one will change forever, one will face the ultimate villain. It's a soap opera smorgasbord that suggests Morrison will be sticking to his plan to never making them an actual team.)

7 SOLDIERS has always been a disappointment in one regard: despite it being far better than any other "special event" they've published in the last year, DC's promotion of the series has been... understated. I was also disappointed that despite early indications 7 SOLDIERS existed in an alternate DC universe (Earth-Morrison, let's say; certainly the 7 SOLDIERS versions of the Shining Knight and Klarion The Witch Boy have no connection to and must supersede their DCU originals if dropped into that milieu), it began spilling over with a clumsy (as if inserted after the fact) reference to INFINITE CRISIS in ZATANNA, and more afterward. The final issue of FRANKENSTEIN pivots on DCU continuity, while the non-heroine of THE BULLETEER basks in it at a superhero convention. Which is too bad - it would have been immensely more entertaining to watch Morrison a new DC universe from the ground up than to watch the forced restructuring of INFINITE CRISIS and its aftermaths - but given the nature of DC's overall marketing approach, assimilation is to be expected. (Speaking of the aftermath of INFINITE CRISIS, aren't there criminal penalties for designing something as ghastly as the Atom's new costume? I know the sleek simplicity of Gil Kane's original is dated, but I didn't realize flat out hideous was in.)

No, here's the main potential disappointment of 7 SOLDIERS: the schedule.

Or, rather, the apparent abandonment of one. 7 SOLDIERS #1, the oversized special wrapping up the story and theoretically answering all questions, was originally due out in early April. The latest listing on the DC site now puts it at June 21. But rumors suggest Morrison, also busy at work writing ALL-STAR SUPERMAN, advising DC on concept redesign and involved in creative direction in some way at Wildstorm, has yet to even write the script.

That may be wrong, but if true, it's a real disappointment.

But not an uncommon one, as readers and retailers are aware. For years now, and despite occasional publisher protestations that things like 52 will come out like clockwork as scheduled, the professional end of the business has grown increasingly oblivious to the idea of getting the damn books out when they say they're going to. Certainly the issue has long been a thorn in Diamond's side.

Like most conditions in comics today, it's an unsavory result of how the culture has evolved since the 1970s. Two main factors are at work:

Used to be comics were popularly identified by specific characters, a situation most comics publishers would prefer to return to. Until the '70s, only hardcore comics fans were really aware of personalities creating the books; it didn't matter to most readers whether Steve Ditko or John Romita was drawing AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, as long as an issue of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN appeared regularly. By the mid-70s, though, newsstands, drug stores and supermarkets - the main outlets for comics - were all dumping them. Stocking comics wasn't cost effective - a retailer could make much more money putting ROLLING STONE or PLAYBOY in the same spot - and the existing distribution system was haphazard; there was no guarantee than all the copies of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN for a given region wouldn't have their covers stripped by the distributor and returned to the publisher for credit.

It was left to enterprising comics fans to address the situation themselves, starting up comics shops and alternative distribution chains, which ultimately coalesced into what we now call the direct market. Comic shops made it considerably easier for comics fans to find the books they wanted, which finally started a sales upswing in the early '80s after nearly industry-destroying sales collapses of the mid-'70s. But it also made the comics fan, not the casual reader, the main market for comics, which distended things. Casual readers, who might buy comics when they came across them but wouldn't be likely to hunt them down, had no idea where to even find comics, and many hardcore comics fans, among whom many comics shop owners numbered, despised casual readers anyway, because casual readers didn't share their obsessions.

This era became a boon for comics talent as well, since the readership dwindled to mainly those who recognized talent names, and not only promoted the books they liked but the talent as well. Suddenly there weren't simply, say, CONAN fans, there were fans of Barry Smith's CONAN. Whether Bob Brown or Frank Miller drew DAREDEVIL made a difference. There were a couple writers, like Steve Englehart and Steve Gerber, whose work was exotic enough that they became stars in their own rights, but it was mostly artists (the day of the writer-artist was right around the corner, and it became difficult for any writer to make a mark unless identified with a specific "hot" artist, like "Englehart-Rogers" or "Gerber-Brunner") who became acknowledged in the new market as the true creative forces in comics, and the game quickly shifted from acknowledging the talents of the day (and, if they were "fan favorites," of the day before, like Kirby and Ditko) to trying to figure out the "next big thing."

This had a curious effect on editorial decisions. In the prior market, if an artist (or writer) screwed up deadlines regularly (often even just once), that person lost the assignment. In the new structure, artists (and occasionally writers) became as marketable as the characters they were working on, sometimes moreso. Independent comics, starting out with new and unrecognized characters, often promoted the talent over the concepts, and it wasn't long before Marvel and DC started doing it too. (With NEW TEEN TITANS, for instance, initially the concept, which many people were predisposed to dismiss as backward-looking childish DC twaddle, was far less important than that Marv Wolfman and George Perez, high-level defectors from Marvel, were producing it.)

Add in the concept being popularized by fandom throughout the '70s, that truly great artists shouldn't be expected to work to deadline because it's unfair to expect genius to punch a timeclock, and it wasn't long before a lot of deadlines began slipping and companies became increasingly loathe to alienate the talent they were marketing their product around, especially when other companies were awaiting the opportunity to steal marketable talent away. (The situation has come back into vogue today.) Companies often found themselves in a bind, especially with special projects and creator owned series, where replacing talent was either commercially untenable or contractually impossible.

Not that this was a bad thing or a wrong direction. It did, in fact, address the long-held view by many publishers that all talent was interchangeable and ultimately disposable, and improved the lives and working conditions of many comics creators. (The view hasn't really changed in most quarters, just adjusted for the flavor of the day.)

There are circumstances where missed deadlines can't be helped, and there are projects that just require more time than companies have allotted for them. It's partly scheduling practices and cash flow issues that are at fault, especially with long projects. Life has a funny way of screwing up plans, and most companies understandably want to recoup their costs as quickly as possible. The direct market of the early '80s grumbled some about comics that missed shipping, but philosophically it understood - was even predicated on - the notion that comics should be made as well as possible, and if that meant taking a few extra weeks or even months, so be it.

The real problem, then, wasn't that talent was missing deadlines but the syllogism adopted by new talent and old that their "genius" was proved by inattentiveness to deadlines. It was an age, much like today, when many were being hailed as groundbreaking geniuses in the field mainly because someone wanted to be the first to discover them. It was also an age when people did become red hot overnight and even the companies couldn't be certain who that would be; often talent the companies spotlighted would be all but ignored by the readership. Companies exacerbated the situation by building in fake deadlines one or two weeks ahead of when they really needed material - which might have worked if they hadn't regularly told the talent those deadlines were bogus. It wasn't long before most of the business started assuming that all deadlines weren't the real deadlines, even when they were. Another factor was the royalties that companies started offering talent in the '80s, originally as another means to keep or lure hot talent. As sales and subsequent royalties rose in the growing '80s comics market, many artists were no longer subject to the low wages that made working fast a necessity in the early days of comics if they wanted to get the bills paid. Money gave many a luxury of time that previously didn't exist.

Royalties and incentives, rising page rates as companies openly competed with each other for talent, a rapidly growing original art market - by the mid-eighties a good artist could find unprecedented respite from the day-to-day mechanical drudgery of having to make a living. Some used that new freedom to carefully plan and create new projects that could be released whenever ready. Far too many, though, adopted a lifestyle of making a big score then waiting until the money was gone before scouring up their next projects.

It also wasn't long before we ended up with a business where release dates meant nothing. That did affect sales; few recall now that Frank Miller's RONIN, his first project after DAREDEVIL, which presaged many subsequent trends in comics but which also was produced very slowly, was originally taken by a large slice of fandom as proof Frank had lost it, and its final issues sold much worse than its earlier ones, partly because the sluggishness of the production - it was perennially very late - gave the anti-RONIN broadsides plenty of time to disseminate. (RONIN, which turns out to have been an inventive and prescient series, continues to have a thriving life in trade paperback when most other projects of the era have faded out of memory, so it's hard to argue that the extra time didn't end up paying dividends for Frank and DC, which may ultimately also turn out to be the case for 7 SOLDIERS.)

In that climate, though, enforcing deadlines became increasingly problematic. But there was plenty of fault to go around. The fan culture of the time was inclined to accept the tardiness, though they might grumble about it; a vocal subsection (which intersected the professional community) even loudly scorned as "soulless hacks" professionals who did cleave to deadlines. A general acceptance in editorial circles that freelancers would screw up deadlines led to the all-too-common spectacle of editors botching up then saving face with their bosses by claiming it was the fault of freelancers who had long since turned in the work. Some publishers also took to falsely blaming freelancers rather than admit to cash flow problems that kept them from publishing according to schedule.

While comics were on the upswing, all this was tolerated, though not many were eager to pick up on signs of discontent. Many artists, taking long breaks under the impression they had a broad, hardcore fan base to return to, increasingly came back to find themselves bypassed and essentially forgotten, their marketability disintegrated. Fans had also learned to be leery of creator-owned books - the term became synonymous with product that wasn't produced on a timely schedule, or, like Alan Moore & Rick Veitch's "Marvel redux" 1963, was never completed - and mini-series didn't fare much better. After the '90s collapse, most comics publishers, having driven off many of the original hardcore fans by pandering to the speculator balloon, found what few fans remained increasingly unforgiving of late product.

But it's something we still have never really addressed as an industry; the general assumption, despite all evidence to the contrary, remains that if a book is special enough fans will be willing to wait for it. And certainly books like Warren Ellis and John Cassaday's PLANETARY don't seem to have been hindered by sporadic release, though who can say what it would have sold if steadily produced? Marvel generated much of its post-bankruptcy "return to coolness" on getting Hollywood luminaries like Kevin Smith writing for them, but Smith has since become a one-word joke whose punchline is, after years, the still unseen final chapter of a BLACK CAT miniseries. If a release date is basically a promise to retailers and readers, most of us in the business have been guilty of bad faith at one point or another, and most of us have become (or grew up being) far too cavalier about it.

The fact is that unless we're talking about an extraordinary project, lateness is a sales killer; most companies will grudgingly admit that resolicited product almost never does anywhere near the numbers of the original order, which has killed a lot of projects over the past few years. A greater problem is that every late project convinces readers to distrust not only that project but all other projects as well. Comics sales may be up over five years ago, but this is still an age when we can't afford to give anyone any more reasons than necessary to not buy comics. Likewise, a publisher might be able to get away with musical talent on monthly titles, but switching talent in midstream on a mini-series or special project is also viewed as a breach of faith, and worse if a book has already been solicited, since Diamond makes such books automatically returnable. Which limits the ability of a publisher to impose strict deadlines on talent from the top down, unless the publisher is already only working with talent it doesn't really wish to hold onto.

Diamond, of course, has tried various solutions to the problem, but, unfortunately, the only real solution puts the onus either entirely on publishers or talent, most of whom are already strapped: don't solicit projects until they're completed. This would mean not only the fourth issue of a mini-series, but the whole mini-series; don't start selling #1 until #4 is ready to go to press. If it falls on publishers, they end up with an awful lot of money tied up in the product. If it falls on talent, they end up with an awful lot of unpaid time invested. In either case, the risk becomes disproportionately huge.

7 SOLDIERS may - will probably - survive any misfortunes brought on by lateness (though, again, who knows what it might have sold if things had gone according to original plan?) but 7 SOLDIERS is far from the only release date problem child in the business. Until we figure out a solution to what's still an industry-wide problem, the best we can hope for are angry retailers and discouraged readers. The comics industry already has enough obstacles in its way these days; we shouldn't be making more of them, especially out of friends we need.

"I had a thought after reading this in today's column:

'There's a saying in the music business that you have your whole life to write your first album and six months to write your second one, and that parallels comics to some extent. I've seen artists produce the most gorgeous sample pages imaginable, which isn't surprising when they pore over them for weeks or months at a time, but when it came time to draw even a six page story on any sort of deadline, they turned out crap.'

The thought is this. If a publisher were serious about looking for new talent (which is a dubious presupposition) the best way to go about it would be a system like this:

A week before a major con, the publisher posts 3 pages of script and a model sheet on their website. Ideally the pages should be chosen the same day they are posted so no one gets a head start.

Anyone who wants a review has to turn in penciled pages from that script by a certain deadline on the first day of the con. When they do, a number is assigned to their work, and they are given that number and a time to come back the next day.

The editor, if he/she has time, looks at all the pages before the meetings the next day. Then on the second day of the con, people come up at their time, and sit with the editor and go over those pages.

I would think that this would better help an editor find what he is looking for in an artist. The artists are following a script, they are drawing the company's characters, they have to meet a deadline, they are working under pressure and under time restrictions, they need to be able to keep a meeting. And it gives the editor a common denominator to evaluate everyone.

For the artists it seems like it would accurately reflect the kinds of pressures they would have in starting out to be a professional comic book artist. They will have to work around life and work, because odds are, they first gig won't pay them enough to quit their day job.

For anyone else who didn't know about the website stuff, then there could be another editor doing standard portfolio reviews.

Again, just a thought. And it requires a publisher who is serious about it, and a editor who has the time and inclination at a con to follow through on it."

Most editors and publishers are serious about finding new talent, but you have to remember it's not their primary raison d'etre. Your system's not bad - in fact, Marvel used to more or less insist would-be artists work from their tryout book, which is something along the lines of your suggestion - but it would take an enormous amount of coordination, and you undercut your own system with the safety net: if there's a standard portfolio review available, who wants to go through the hassle of the one-week rush, especially if that week must also include preparing for and traveling to the convention where the editors will see your work. In fact, a convention isn't even necessary; all a publisher really needs to do is set up an allotted time for "unveiling" the plot/script and a deadline for getting jpegs of your work in. But that still requires someone more or less dedicated to sifting through them, because someone would still have to eliminate the likely hundreds of entries that are too substandard to consider. There's also a potential legal problem with an established publisher handing out a script and character sheets; disclaimers aside, if someone wanted to get pissy about it, a lawyer might be willing to claim it's a de facto assignment and the company owes his client a kill fee, or worse. I realize it's probably not in the best interests of budding artists, but for companies the current system probably works about as well as any is likely to.

"I am running my own start-up venture seeking to publish comics and would love your input. I think that the new bookstore boom is indicative of a new market where we intend to publish our product with a focus on format and control. Adopting Japanese business tactics as opposed to artistic style, we plan to publish a 400 page monthly anthology magazine retailing in the five to six dollar range, resembling the successful manga format in bookstores. Not insisting on ownership of properties but entering into contractual agreements with creative people more similar to licensing deals giving us exclusivity and control of a franchise."

I understand the allure of the SHONEN JUMP format, but, as I said, SHONEN JUMP had the benefit of series already widely popular in America courtesy of Cartoon Network and Kids WB: YU-GI-OH! and DRAGONBALL Z (and, currently, NARUTO). Unlike the direct market, the bookstore market is totally returnable, which means any publisher must be ready to eat a substantial number of copies if necessary. I'm not sure what material a startup publisher could fill a 400 page comics magazine with that would reasonably guarantee enough sales to limit returns to a digestible amount, or that would entice a sufficient number of bookstores to clear space for it. (Or, for that matter, how it would be affordable for a publisher if talent of sufficient marketability were included; it seems to me pay would have to be on a royalty basis alone in order to make a $6 price tag even remotely economical. Unless the magazine sold in the millions, of course.) I'm not saying it can't be done, but, ultimately, if a project like you're suggesting sells, it's going to be on the basis of content. Format may get your foot in the door, but, as many comics publishers have learned over the years to their regret, format without content is a strictly short term proposition.

"I just wanted to drop a quick line about the last paragraph of your most recent column, because it bugged me. In it you claimed a "pretty smart" person recognized that you're not a Christian if you don't view the Bible as the ultimate "Word of God," and gave credence to this idiocy with the sign-off "End of story." I wondered for a second if you'd forgotten about cutting and pasting something from a Conservative editorial or something. The statement effectively calls out anyone who reads THE DA VINCI CODE or fishes awful Kirk Cameron movies out of Wal-Mart discount bins as not just a bad Christian, but as something else entirely. It seems to me most Christians who follow apocryphal or purely theoretical texts are simply following up on their interests, not trying to discover a new mode of belief. I also sometimes wonder if they're looking for better ways to observe due to dissatisfaction with how organized religion commands them to worship, which still doesn't negate them as Christian. Really, it seems to me a belief in the existence of Christ and attempting to follow the lifestyle he is credited with espousing makes you a Christian. The rest is just denominational nitpicking.

It's like the golden rule Christ learned from the example of Hillel, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation. Go and study it." People like your "pretty smart" friend get off on browbeating fans of cheesy novels because it makes them feel like a "real" Christian, but all it proves is their insight is badly skewed by logs in their eyes. If they were smart, they'd know the Bible was translated and constructed by committee and filtered through contaminating political processes that render anything that made it into print a matter of debate. Whole books like Deuteronomy have been found to be fabricated, while most archeological evidence disputes Biblical claims, and scholars realize that even in the times they were written, they were understood as metaphorical moralist fictions. So what, Christians don't allow for secular humanitarianism? They aren't allowed to recognize that maybe new writings can enhance their faith, and ancient ones can't allow further insight?

So basically, I expect better from you, and I'm surprised that paragraph went out as written. I don't believe the viewpoint really washes with you, so I figure a clarification is in order."

First of all, yeah, you got me. That properly should have been Fundamentalist Christian. That aside, no, I doubt you have to accept Deuteronomy to be a Christian, but belief in the Gospels, at least, seems de rigueur, or you're basically making up your own religion. (Which isn't unheard of when it comes to Christianity.) Believing that Christ's teachings have validity, or even believing in the existence of Christ, isn't quite the same thing as believing in Christ. I find a lot of value in both Machiavelli and Nietzsche (and am reasonably certain they existed) but that doesn't make me Machiavellian or Nietzschean. (By the way, my friend who made the comment isn't a Christian and has never browbeaten any that I'm aware of. That's my job.) I do think a lot of professed Christians do try to make room in their worldviews for secular humanism (a lot don't) but there's always going to be points where Christianity - unless you reduce Christianity solely to "love thy neighbor as thyself" - where religion and "secular humanism" collide, and that's the point where people choose sides.

"I found a site that monitors the direct market and posts reports fairly regularly: Comtrac. It was part of my research into opening a comic store as well, but since breezing through this I'm a little more skeptical about it. I hope it helps out those in question on [last] week's article."

Thanks. Do you mean you're more skeptical about opening a comics shop, or about Comtrac?

"I'm finding it kind of eerie that so much information is coming out on opening a retail comic store. I too came to the decision that I'll be making an attempt at it as well. I hope you get some answers soon.

I suppose you could always try to get James Simes (your fellow contributor and Comic Pimp) to pinch hit on answering the question in [last week]'s column."

James?

"It takes a bit of work to navigate, but all the demographic info you could ever want is available from the US Census Bureau, via the American Fact Finder.

BTW, thanks for the section on the religious right. Sometimes I wonder if anyone else is paying attention."

Fox News will never cop to it, but many are paying attention. As for the census bureau, yes, it's a great resource, but I'm not convinced it's all that applicable to aspiring comics shop owners. It will give them a nice breakdown of age and sex distinctions in their proposed area, but I doubt it will tell them much in terms of comics buying or collecting patterns. Which might be a pivotal factor... (Me, if I were opening a shop, I'd try to put it in reasonable proximity to a liberal arts college or a large high school, all other things being equal...)

"With regard to the question posed by a prospective comics retailer asking if there's any demographic data out there, I've often heard recommended Melchior Thompson & Associates as a good source not only for things like software packages useful to comics retailers, but also as a consultant able to provide some demographic data.

To your point about comics stores perhaps drawing some lessons from bookstores, the American Booksellers Association offers some seminars, benefits, etc. for prospective booksellers. A comics store might certainly be able to benefit from whatever the ABA might be able to offer."

The ABA might be the best resource for learning how to maintain and survive a bookstore, yes. Like I said, at this point it's probably a better idea to view your store as a bookstore that sells comics than as a comics shop...

"You stated, 'I think it's important to have some sense of your demographics, but when push comes to shove it's not the demographics that are going to matter but your instinct for managing your demographics for maximum success, however you define that. Demographics are a tool, but you're the one who has to figure out how to use the tool.' That is very important.

Real estate appraisers are able to get their hands on demographics. Although I don't know how they do this, but if they can, why not somebody looking into opening a business?

You've addressed this before, but let them know a comic shop's decoration is very key. You can have the best demographic information, but decorate a comic shop like an underground cave reserved for middle-age men living in mommy's basement is a big "D'oh!" They should be directed to read every single James Sime's Comic Pimp column they can find in CBR archives. He gives sound advice & successful examples beyond demographics."

Better Business Bureaus are probably a good source of local business data as well. If nothing else, they can probably tell you all the comics shops that have come and gone in your region in recent years and where they were located. (Real estate appraisers have huge shared databases, by the way.) But you're dead right about the ambiance. All the demographic data in the world won't overcome a crappily designed, unappealing store.

Had a last minute rewrite emergency on a screenplay today, which bit into my time, so I'd like to apologize to all those who have sent in books for review in the last few weeks (not to mention editors to whom I still owe work) and promise it will all be taken care of before next Tuesday. (The screenplay's done and circulating now, so I won't be wearing that particular albatross around my neck for awhile.)

Again, I want to thank all those who ordered HEAD CASES, my PDF-published script collection, in the last week. Those interested in ordering HEAD CASES, which includes almost 275 pages of comics scripts and notes, please go to my PAPER MOVIES site for ordering information. Right now I'm trying to scrounge up the excess funds needed to finance a switch to hi-speed (equipment and installation costs) so if you feel like helping out this is the easy and oh so entertaining way to do it.

Wow, is it Free Comic Book Day again already? I might drop in at Ralph Mathieu's Alternate Reality Comics (4800 Maryland Pkwy #D, a couple blocks north of Tropicana and a couple miles east of the Strip here in Las Vegas) if I get the chance, but scheduled to appear is Bill Willingham, who currently writes FABLES for Vertigo and SHADOWPACK for DC. Man, Ralph will let anybody in...

Congratulations to Daniel Dean, who was the first to guess that the comics in last week's Comics Cover Challenge all connected to sleep or dreams. (SANDMAN speaks for itself, the robotic villain in the Captain America story in TALES OF SUSPENSE is called 'The Sleeper,' POINT BLANK is the "pilot" for Ed Brubaker's excelled SLEEPER series, the villain in that issue of JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA is the dream-manipulating Dr. Destiny, FREDDY'S DEAD is an adaptation of NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, PSYCHOANALYSIS includes dream therapy, and a co-star in FOREVER PEOPLE is Beautiful Dreamer.)

Daniel wishes to promote Goodlife.Org, and also wants to encourage people to support blood and organ donation. "Superstition or a fear of needles keeps far too many people from helping in the simplest way possible."

Scattered throughout the column are the covers for this week's Comics Cover Challenge. Seven comics, one secret theme connecting them. Be the first one to tell me what it is in an email, and you can promote any website of your choice here. (We reserve right of approval, but that hasn't been an issue so far.) Normally I'd leave a clue to the answer but there are so many clues in the column already it'd be like beating you over the head with them.

Another casualty this week is any political commentary (is that mixture of sobs and spontaneous applause I hear?) but one thing I found particularly amusing was the Hand Puppet's bold stand against a Spanish-language version of the Star Spangled Banner. Sure, why should Latinos who haven't mastered English know what the song is about? I mean, who gives a rat's ass if someone wants to translate it into Spanish? What could it possibly matter? It's not like anyone's going to be forced to stop singing the English version. (We need a new national anthem anyway. I nominate "Who Do You Love?")

Finally don't forget I have two other books 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? Also, go pick up PAT NOVAK FOR HIRE, my semi-tongue-in-cheek crime thriller from Moonstone Books, which has some of Tom Mandrake's best art ever. I know Tom would love you for it, at least. (You can get it straight from Moonstone if your local retailer doesn't and won't have any... but he can get them from Diamond, so he has no excuse for not having or getting any.)

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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