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Issue #243

THIS WEEK

NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARD: Whisper newsletter, Markosia's troubles and the philosophy of publishing, Comics Cover Challenge, good causes, Bill Willingham, media consultants

BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE: shake-ups in the CIA, Congress vs. big oil, more bad vibes for Congressional Republicans, and even some of th press won't stay docile anymore

IN REVIEW: a cascade of titles from TwoMorrows, DC, Vertigo, Boom! & Del Rey Manga

FEEDeedBACKack: reader weigh in on 7 SOLDIERS and other topics

If you ever subscribed to the WHISPER NEWSLETTER (per instructions at the end of this column every week) you're probably as frustrated as I am. Almost. For ages, every time it looked like there'd be actual news (aside from the relatively endless string of options - Whisper has exuded a period allure for film and TV producers since 1986, when the WHISPER film deal (set to star, god help us, Vanity, in one of those cyberpunk futures that were all the rage then... never have I been so happy a deal, concocted by First, didn't come off, though everyone involved with it seemed nice enough) was proposed but never signed before the production company (built on TEEN WOLF) went belly up) something happened to void it. Like the WHISPER graphic novel I set up at AiT/PlanetLar Books a couple years ago: three times we had artists attached and three times they vanished into the woodwork. (Two times without apparently wanting to tell us; the first artist got a lucrative, time-consuming MTv gig and had to drop out, which was completely understandable, if annoying. Lesson: if you're not going to do a project you've committed to, tell the publisher/editor/writer/whoever right away. You'll make fewer enemies in the long run.) The GN was written ages ago now, but to this day remains undrawn.

Right now I might be even a little more frustrated than you, so I'd like to pass it around some. Because, finally, there's actually reason to put out a WHISPER NEWSLETTER.

And Microsoft Outlook has found it in its heart to refuse to open any .PST file made on any of my computers before January 2005. Even with the computer and program that made most of them. I'm working with a pal at Microsoft to try to correct the problem, but just to be on the safe side:

The e-newsletter is going out by Thursday come hell or high water. If you subscribed since Jan 1 2005, you have nothing to worry about. If you subscribed before that, you might want to resubscribe right now, with a "Whisper - subscribe" email. As the subject just say SUBSCRIBE, and in the body just list the email address you want it sent to. Nothing else required. We might be able to get to all the old subscriptions by Wednesday, but this will guarantee you get it.

No charge, of course, and, for you security mavens out there, your information is shared with absolutely no one. Not CBR, not publishers, editors, marketers, nobody.

And now I hear All The Rage has run a story about it when I nicely asked them to hold off until next Sunday... son of a bitch... Well, there's still only one place to get the real scoop...

Wow, it's déjà vu all over again again. Remember the dot-com craze? All these websites going from fanatical garage operations to multi-million dollar extravaganzas due to the influx of venture capital. Only problem was: venture capitalists are rarely interested in the long run. Their objective is to feed what they figure is going to be the future so they can get their money back, substantially increased, as quickly as possible. So whateve the original intent of a company, whenever venture capitalists get involved the primary objective becomes to pay back the VCs. Few dot-coms understood that, they only really understood the cash influx and the sudden giddy rush of public offerings - which generally resulted in VCs getting their payoff and bailing out, leaving the stocks and the companies (and those who bought to stock) to crash. Hench the dot-crash, when it became clear to everyone that many dot-coms really didn't have any plans to generate continued revenue.

Not that comics are likely to attract venture capitalists anytime soon, at least not since the Valiant/Acclaim debacle which went more or less the same way. (When Valiant was sold to Acclaim for tens of millions of dollars - well in excess of its worth - the VCs got paid off, and the company collapsed not long afterward, since the comic market was, by the time of the purchase, in collapse and Acclaim didn't know anything about the comics market to start with.) But one thing recent history has taught us is that if any comics company breathes the word "investors," run for the hills. It's not even that recent a phenomenon. All during their long, slow slide, First Comics kept excitedly talking about "new investors," and it never changed anything. It tends to be the assumption of most comics companies that money will cure their problems, but if they get the money they don't change any of the behavior that led to the problems.

If your comics company can't become a self-sustaining entity within three years of start-up, odds are it never will be. Even if someone at that point comes to you with the biggest profit-potential property of the century, odds are pretty good you'll never be able to capitalize on it because you'll have shot your credibility with retailers and consumers by then, so no one will ever see it. Most companies have a very narrow window in which to demonstrate their value, and once it closes, it closes, barring a small miracle. Most companies also only seek investors when their original cash, and their cash flow, dries up. Which is one of the reasons "new investors" is a huge, flashing danger sign.

You may recall how Speakeasy made much hay about "new investors" (reportedly, a Hollywood producer looking to create his own little Dark Horse Comics to be a license generator) before it closed its doors. The investor simply never came across with any money. As soon as Speakeasy closed its doors, several publishers and retailers told me Markosia would be the next company to watch, and their meaning wasn't positive. A couple of weeks ago, I began hearing how Markosia's "new investors" were looking to renegotiate contracts to the extent it was driving creators away, something Chuck Satterlee, apparently now the company spokesman, didn't address in a huffy interview the weekend before last where he shouted down questions that Markosia was running light on cash with the assertion that he would never have taken a job there were that the case.

But his interview this week with Comic Book Resources verifies pretty much everything I'd heard. Satterlee cites a new "silent" partner, who came in after publisher Harry Markos "floated" money from his own accounts to keep the business afloat (cue CrossGen flashbacks). Chuck obviously has a different definition of "silent" from the rest of us, since he then goes on to say the investor's first act was to restructure all the contracts. Which makes sense from a moneyman's point of view, but it's far from silent. Interestingly, the one part of the contract that stays rock solid is ancillary rights going to Markosia as part of the package, which suggests that Markosia, like many publishing startups of the last few years, is really predicating its longterm expectations on media deals. As I've outlined here before, good luck with that one, guys.

However Markosia looked to creators before - and quite a few were telling me half a year ago when Speakeasy collapsed that Markosia was the new promised land - it has to look questionable now. What the deal, as Satterlee lays out, comes down to: no money for the creators - it basically all comes off the backend and Satterlee doesn't mention whether any of their books are generating a backend - and the company takes any rights that even stand a chance of generating money. Which has now become the de facto difference in comics between "work-for-hire" and "creator-owned." With work-for-hire a company must pay talent something in order to establish legal right to and control over the work. "Creator-owned" contracts, on the other hand, can say anything and usually do, but it always seems to translate, in the long run, to "we control all the rights to your creation and you don't get any say in the matter."

Which means they still get everything, and the talent amounts to hopeful slave labor. It's no wonder most talent views Marvel, DC and Dark Horse, and a precious few others, as Meccas. At least there the companies have contractual obligations to guarantee the talent gets something from their labors, besides a published comic book almost no one will ever see. (Often, they don't even get that.)

Thinking about it, it's time for a general strike against comics companies that demand all media rights to properties without paying any money for them - preferably separate from any publishing deal, but inclusive in publishing money if there's money for publication and separate from any publishing deal if there isn't. If they don't want to put up money for the work, media rights shouldn't even be part of the discussion. There are small companies, like Avatar, and even large companies like Image, that get along perfectly well - thrive, in fact - without demanding media rights to what they publish. If a company insists on media rights without guaranteeing some sort of pay for either the publishable work or the rights, it translates into two things.

1) They don't have faith in their ability to make money from publishing comics. And there's no reason talent should put faith in them either.

2) They're pinning their hopes on selling movie options and getting films or TV shows made, which means they don't realize just how deflated Hollywood option money is these days, and they don't grasp what a crapshoot Hollywood really is, on so many levels. (There's a reason Marvel stopped going through other producers and formed their own production company.)

Barring a small miracle, most of these companies will be doomed to publishing desperate startup talent, which is pretty much a roadmap to low sales and a rapid loss of retailer interest. And the talent will take these deals just to get something published so they have something to show that will drag them up the ladder, except it also usually means they most likely have been published long before they're capable of creating work that will actually impress anyone, which is as likely to hurt as help them. This is a business crawling with well-known pitfalls. Isn't it time people started looking out for them?

Congratulations to Rob Vollmar for being the first to identify the books in last week's Comics Cover Challenge as being drawn by artists who also worked on Grant Morrison's 7 SOLDIERS OF VICTORY. Rob is the author of the wonderful series BLUESMAN, now being published by NMB, and understandably wants to plug The Bluesman Project and mention that Vols. 1-3 of BLUESMAN are available for order in the May/July 06 Previews catalog.

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.) As usual, there's a clue hidden here somewhere, but it's not the hottest clue I ever came up with.

Also, slight typo last week: the website Daniel Dean wanted to direct you to was Givelife. Which explains the donating blood reference. A couple other good causes have popped up recently, so I'm momentarily popping out of format to plug them:

Dan Mishkin and his daughter Alice urge you to go to the Save Darfur Coalition and urge the President and your Congressmen to do something about the ongoing genocide in the Sudanese province of Darfur.

And one reader would like to point your attention to The National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

I'm not planning to list causes weekly but these two seemed too good to ignore just because someone didn't reach my column ahead of someone else.

My apologies to Bill Willingham and Alternate Reality Comics (here in Las Vegas on Maryland Parkway just north of Tropicana, a couple miles east of the Strip - and be sure to say hi to Ralph for me if you drop in there; he'll give you a Twizzler if you mention my name, while supplies last) for saying Bill was signing there for Free Comic Book Day (which went over pretty well this year, from the few reports I've heard) last Saturday. Bill will in fact be appearing at Alternate Reality on May 17th, to celebrate the release of his new DC book SHADOWPACK. Be there.

Speaking of Hollywood, this is amusing. Had a call from a producer friend yesterday, checking up on how comics are made. Seems he had a chat with an agent who has a client who has a "great idea" for a comic book that the wants some comics company to pay to publish but the client doesn't want to do anything on the comic but the client doesn't want to pay anyone to do anything on the comic but the client wants to keep all the rights. Self-publishing, it seems, is just too damn expensive. When I finished laughing - it took awhile - I realized, hey, I wouldn't mind a deal like that myself.

What this brought home to me was that if comics people don't really understand Hollywood, Hollywood really doesn't understand the comics business.

So as of now Paper Movies is offering consultant services to any agent, manager, management company, actor, screenwriter, producer, production company, studio or ad agency looking at any level of involvement with comics. Frankly, you guys really need someone who knows the ropes. Just email me at Paper Movies. (I just thought of this two minutes ago, so there's nothing about it on the Paper Movies website yet, but give me a few days.) "Graphic Story Services™." That has a nice ring to it.

By the way, I now have three e-books available in .pdf format at Paper Movies:

HEAD CASES:

A collection of comics scripts I've written over the years, with notes. Nearly 275 pages, for those who want to see how it's done, or see what goes into a script, or wants to check original scripts against published comics to see how much influence an artist has on the final product. Fun and educational!

TOTALLY OBVIOUS:

Collecting all my lively essays from my original web column, Master Of The Obvious, candidly revealing all the inner secret workings of comics, culture and creativity. It has been almost five years since I wrapped up MOTO, but it's a sign of our times that virtually all the information in TOTALLY OBVIOUS is as valid today as when I wrote it.

IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS:

Collecting my political commentary from the fall of the Twin Towers to mid-2005: a portrait of a nation gripped by panic and paranoia, and what it has really cost us.

All are available in two editions: optimized for screen or optimized for print. For ordering information go to Paper Movies (for HEAD CASES) and The Paper Movies Store (for the other two).

Jeez, now even newspapers are talking about how rough it is to be a Republican politician these days. Between scandals, the deteriorating war in Iraq and rumblings over new war in Iran, failed Congressional political pushes and skyrocketing gas prices, they're gaping at a bad, bad election year. The House Majority leader, John Boehner talks openly about how his Ohio constituents - the ones credited with putting the Hand Puppet back in the Oval Office - vilified Bill Frist's proposal of "easing" the gas crisis by rebating $100 to every motorist, while oil companies are raking in record profits. The other major planks in the Republicans' "gas crisis" platform were, predictably, opening the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve to oil drilling (never mind that there's probably not enough oil there to make more than a few weeks' difference, it's still money waiting to be made!) and dropping virtually all regulations on oil companies. The main Democrat proposal was equally inane: heavily tax oil companies. While, sure, the extra cash would go a little ways towards offsetting the tens of billions of dollars we're bleeding into Iraq (and, by extension, the coffers of Bechtel, Halliburton and, reportedly, various Iraqi death squads), not to mention the cheap emotional satisfaction of seeing oil companies "bilked" the way most people now think they're "bilking" us (I don't know if "bilking" is the right word, though there's no question that oil companies are currently far more interested in profits than in public relations), the Democrats fail to explain how these increased taxes would equate to relief for the consumer at the gas pumps.

Then again, relief probably isn't in the cards. The time to do something about foreign oil was thirty years ago, when the problem first gripped the popular imagination, but it was ultimately decided by the power brokers that ensuring maximum oil profits was more pressing that finding ways to wean America from the petroleum teat, and most Americans, not to mention administrations, were more than happy to go along with it. (The current administration has been the worst, though, savagely gutting alternative energy programs since they took office.) Now half-assed "consumer" schemes are the vogue, like singling out Mobil Oil for boycott, which is so ignorant of economic reality and consumer necessity it's hilarious; surely a Chevron executive must've come up with that one. (It's not new, and makes the rounds every few years.) A friend of mine mentioned awhile back he's buying his gasoline exclusively from Citgo as a protest against Middle Eastern oil, since Citgo supposedly gets its oil from Venezuela, but last I heard Venezuela was still a member of OPEC.

A political solution just isn't likely. We've known for a long time oil was running out, and it's not like oil-producing nations don't have a right to profit from their oil. We'd certainly claim we did, if we had it. Sadly, I have to agree with the Hand Puppet on this, though his pronouncement was certainly if unintentionally ironical: the only real solution to the problem is to stop driving. Which most of us are simply not in a position to do, since most of America was built on the premise that people would drive to where they needed to be.

Given the administration's practice of hampering alternate energy and Cheney's decision to only chat with energy moguls during his now infamous secret energy policy talks, you have to kind of wonder how much of this those talks set into motion. Is this the real reason the White House insists minutes of those talks remain shrouded in secrecy, like virtually everything else the White House has a hand in? (For instance, the list of Congressmen they claim they notified of their warrantless domestic spying program, which those who've seen it claim isn't anywhere near as inclusive as the administration is making it out to be.)

Half-assed is, however, the byword in Washington, something most Americans are obviously getting sick of. A recent Republican-backed "lobbyist reform bill" almost provoked a civil war with Republicans on the Appropriations Committee who envisioned their traditional tithes evaporating, barely passed and pretty much ended up addressing nothing. Look for more self-scalding around Memorial Day, when House Republicans start a debate over our future in Iraq, just to try to prove to constituents they're doing something with their near total control of the branches of government. About the only thing worse than being a Republican in Congress these days is being a Democrat. The Democrats can't even lay claim to being the opposition.

Not that the Hand Puppet's had a good time of it lately either. Porter Goss, who was put in charge of the CIA mainly to mop up malcontents in the Company who stood in opposition to the Administration's subsequently discredited interpretation of pre-war data on Iraq, abruptly resigned last week. (Former CIA chief George Tenet had rubberstamped the "official interpretation" demanded by Cheney over the objections of many CIA analysts, and Tenet eventually fell on his sword when the Administration's version of the Iraqi "threat" was eventually show to be lies and willful fantasy.) Goss, who came in as an Administration insider and quickly set about purging the Agency of anyone who felt their job was something other than pandering to whatever was in the political wind at the moment - something the CIA has never really had much trouble doing - turns out, it seems, to be more of a Company man than expected. Having done a CIA stint himself in his youth, Goss ended up battling with another White House insider, John Negroponte, and his deputy (and the Hand Puppet's new nominee for Goss' job) Air Force General Michael Hayden, who was/is in charge of the White House's secret domestic spying program.

Hayden's nomination reflects the "batten the hatches" mentality permeating the White House, and even Republican Congressmen loyal to the Hand Puppet are questioning the wisdom of placing the CIA, a civilian agency, essentially under military control. (Which is mildly ironic, given that during Vietnam the military - at least there - was essentially under CIA control. Me, I'm of mixed minds about this. What the Hand Puppet seems eager to do - again apparently reflecting an Oedipal struggle with his former CIA chief father - is neuter or dismantle the CIA. Which I'd wholeheartedly favor if all signs didn't point to Negroponte and crew wanting to replace it with something worse.) It seems almost too coincidental that all this interagency intrigue comes on the heels of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's public humiliation at a televised press conference by former CIA analyst (and outspoken Admin critic) Ray McGovern, who went off-script by calling Rumsfeld on the carpet for lying to the American public about the pre-war Iraqi threat. The question nearly got McGovern summarily ejected before Rumsfeld remembered they were in a room full of TV cameras. The exchange got a lot of play; it wouldn't be outside the traditions of this Administration if Goss bore the brunt of Rumsfeld's wrath.

Even relaxation isn't relaxing for the Hand Puppet anymore. The guest of honor at a White House Press Corp dinner, he was forced to sit through a long, hilarious keynote appearance by Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert in which HP was the brunt of most of the jokes. (Which shouldn't have surprised anybody. Either the event planners never bothered to watch Colbert's show, or they signed him up with malice aforethought.) Colbert announced his contempt for the lapdog White House press corps and suggested that qualified him to be the new White House Press Secretary, comforted the President for a public approval rating dropped to an all-time low of 33% and excoriated the press for recent mild uppitiness in occasionally asking questions when for some many years they'd been blandly cooperative enough to accept out of hand anything the White House told them about anything. He took on the Pentagon, John McCain and Antonin Scalia. Colbert was clearly a guy who didn't care if he were ever invited back, didn't seem to care if he even made it out of the room in one piece. The Hand Puppet, not to mention the White House press corps, was reportedly not amused. But the press itself turned out, as usual, to be the administration's silver lining: almost no reports of the event even mentioned Colbert's presence, preferring instead to focus on an anemic, reverential bit where the Hand Puppet "performed" with an impersonator.

Just another bad day in Washington. Could be worse though; an English friend of mine just returning from a vacation in the Mother Country gives them around six months before full-fledged race war breaks out over there...

From TwoMorrow Publishing:

THE COLLECTED JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR Vol. 5, ed by John Morrow, 224 pg b&w trade paperback ($24.95)

The title's cumbersome, but this is one of those obvious labors of love, honoring Jack Kirby. I was never a huge Kirby fan, but some of the pieces here - mostly pencil work drawn from his Marvel days on - are quite stunning, much more impressive than the inked versions. The art's the main draw, obviously, and it's kind of funny; while Kirby's renowned for his "heroic ideal" superheroes, his romance and crime art is often much stronger. Decent articles and interviews too, but the best text piece in the book is a long interview with Gil Kane tracing Kirby's progress and his own, and the progress of the medium since the '40s. It's not quite worth the cover price on its own, but it comes close. Historians, Kirby fans and general fans of comics art, take note.

SILVER STAR GRAPHIC EDITION by Jack Kirby, 160 pg b&w trade paperback ($19.95)

On the other hand... Kirby's last 15 years or so weren't his strongest, and SILVER STAR epitomizes his slow decline. The art, again mostly printed in the original pencils (and Kirby's pencils are very forceful and usually very complete), and, again, diehard Kirby fans won't be disappointed. The story... well... Silver Star is an engineered atom-manipulating mutant designed to replace the human race after nuclear annihilation wipes them out, and another of his kind, Darius Drumm (who looks a lot like Desaad dressed in Darkseid's hand-me-downs), is determined to destroy the human race himself and crush the spirits of any surviving mutants because... um... because that's what evil superpowered geniuses do? As with much Kirby scripted himself in his later days, characterizations are emphemeral, the plot disintegrates into an unmotivated chaos, and the dialogue is so stilted it's almost in semaphore. Then the story goes ghetto with remorselessly clichéd dialogue that was already 20 years out of date when it was first published, then villain Drumm capriciously evolves into the Angel Of Death, then... brrr. For art fans only.

DRAW! #12 ed by Michael Manley, 96 pg b&w magazine ($6.95)

One of TwoMorrows' how-to magazines, this issue of DRAW! features long interview with Kyle Baker, Mike Hawthorne and animator Chris McCullough, as well as a lesson in perspective drawing from Manley and an Adobe Illustrator tutorial. Overall it's pretty good - I don't know how aspiring comics or animation artists could fail to pick up a lot of good pointers - but I'm not sure who this magazine is really aimed at. Anyone can enjoy the interviews, and that's the main problem; interviews take up the bulk of the magazine but rarely delve far from personal or historical material. Where's the insight into the mechanical process of art, and how the artists faced specific technical challenges? What's good about DRAW! is very good, but to be of real use to other artists the discussions need to focus a lot more on the nuts and bolts of the process.

WRITE NOW! #12 ed by Danny Fingeroth, 80 pg b&w magazine ($6.95)

Their other how-to magazine, this one aimed at aspiring writers. The interviews in WRITE NOW! (this issue features a good one with Paul Levitz) tend share their DRAW! counterparts' weakness, but editor Fingeroth compensates for that with focused ancillary material, such as the collection of pitch notes, script pages, finished art and notations for the DARK DETECTIVE series that accompany this issue's Steve Englehart interview. John Ostrander discusses the place of theme in comics writing, there's an extended section on what editors want, and material on writing webcomics. Pound for pound it's the best issue of the magazine so far, and that's in no way a backhanded compliment. Writers will find a look worth it.

From DC and Vertigo:

AQUAMAN: SWORD OF ATLANTIS #40 by Kurt Busiek & Butch Guice, 32 pg color comic ($2.99)

It's a shame that DC didn't just throw the baby out with the INFINITE CRISIS bathwater and start from scratch because this new Aquaman would make a lot more sense that way. Guice makes this one of the best looking books around and Busiek struggles mightily, but man! are those constant references to the pre-IC Aquaman irritating. (It may be a red herring - no pun intended - but is there anyone who doesn't think the squidheaded old seer is a muddlebrained old Aquaman.) It's too bad they have to refer to the old king of Atlantis at all, or tie the new guy into his continuity, because the new guy - an apparent genetic freak who can breath underwater, in imitation of the original '40s version of Aquaman - is already more interesting than the old one ever was. Though the story was a smidge tepid - new Aquaman gets lost at sea in a storm and saves the King Of Sharks with the help of some old crazy guy - the concept is interesting enough that it'd be nice to see it get some room to breath, but it's already starting to look like it'll drown under the weight of unnecessary old baggage.

HARD TIME #2-5 by Steve Gerber, Mary Skrenes & Brian Hurtt, 32 pg color comics ($2.50@)

I still can't quite warm up to Hurtt's art, but it has grown more expressive, and the real show here is Gerber & Skrenes' brutal prison drama/social drama. Teenage co-conspirator in a Columbine-like incident ends up doing 50 years in maximum security, and incessantly finds himself the prey of older, tougher cons while his mother and lawyer try to line up do-gooders to secure his release. The hero's life is simplified slightly by sympathetic if reticent fellow cons and an ancient, invisible energy being that lives in the hero's body. In this second series - unfortunately, it's currently walking its last mile - Gerber & Skrenes shift the battleground a little, moving slowly from questions of mundane evil to cosmic evil, as a serial killer enters the prison population. If anything published by a major company qualifies as a writer's tour-de-force, this does. Buy it while you still can.

TESTAMENT #3&4 by Douglas Rushkoff & Liam Sharp, 32 pg color comics ($2.99@)

Damn, it's almost like Vertigo never stopped giving Jaime Delano work. Novelist Rushkoff's TESTAMENT is almost pure Delano concept, the type he used to spit out for Vertigo all the time: an underground band of protesters' struggle against a quasi-fascistic industrial security state, and their struggle parallels/replays the "battle behind the pages" Biblical war between Jehovah and pagan gods who are attempting their own second coming in the modern day. Rushkoff's scenario is imaginative enough, but I'm still not convinced, partly because Liam Sharp's art is so much stronger and more confident when depicting Biblical scenes and ancient gods than when drawing the mundane modern stuff. (Love his "bug tanks," though.) It's moving along well enough, but this is the sort of series that can't really be judged until it's over.

THE EXTERMINATORS #2-4 by Simon Oliver & Tony Moore, 32 pg color comics ($2.99@)

Another "Delano" book, this one turns out to be really good, as exterminators go about their business, unwittingly spreading a super pesticide secretly designed to turn bugs into superbugs somehow tied to an apparently supernatural box. It's funny, touching, horrific, and by #4 Oliver and Moore really start to mesh as their work takes on the pace and confidence of PREACHER, with stuff you haven't seen before. A winner.

HELLBLAZER #217-218 by Denise Mina & Leonardo Manco, 32 pg color comics ($2.75@)

Constantine hies to Scotland in pursuit of a cult linked to an ancient heretical monk, and runs into a childhood pal while fending off and scaring off petty demons. Mina writes characters very well - this is a restrained, appealing Constantine - but the story is moving at a crawl. I understand the need for mood and all that, but a little compression would work too. I like the bit where Constantine is suffering from a sudden, unnatural empathy with other people, but it hasn't been punched home enough; by the third chapter, he's practically using it as a superpower when it's supposed to be a curse, which bleeds much of the intended irony out of it. That aside, it's still holding my interest. Manco's art is stronger and less awash in shadows than usual, which goes a long way toward keeping things interesting. I want to see a great payoff to all this, though.

HELLBLAZER: PAPA MIDNIGHT by Mat Johnson, Tony Akins & Dan Green, 136 pg color trade paperback ($12.99)

Someone's been reading AMERICAN GODS. Papa Midnite was an awful caricature villain from the earliest issues of HELLBLAZER given a cool makeover by the CONSTANTINE movie; Johnson's story positions him as a Revolutionary War con man cursed to live until the black race triumphs over its white tormenters, and to accomplish this Midnite entices African gods on a slow trek to America. Aside from his pre-curse petty greed and the thirst for freedom among American slaves, how anyone in this book plans to accomplish their goals never becomes very clear, and things never really pull together - a subplot with Constantine first hiring on to eliminate Midnite and then recruit him for a critical magical mission just evaporates mid-stream. What's really good is Johnson's grasp of Midnite's mecurial character, which becomes the cement that holds the rest together, almost against its will. The Akins-Green art is okay. One question: why is this printed on paper nowhere near as good as Vertigo's usual stock?

From Boom! Studios:

WHAT WERE THEY THINKING? by various, 32 pg color comic ($3.99)

40s & 50s comics stories rewritten for comic effect. Most of those stories were ridiculous in their own right, but the stuff here is mostly hilarious. Keith Giffen & Mike Loeb have great fun savaging an already ludicrous Basil Wolverton Spacehawk story, but John Rogers wins the prize this issue, turning one of those lukewarm psychobabble "hypnosis" stories prevalent in '50s mystery comics into a knowing drugs-and-Freud psychobabble story that's flat out uproarious. Given the amount of unattended '40s and '50s stuff out there, I could easily see this sort of thing becoming a fad, but for anyone thinking of imitation books, this sets a high mark to match.

WAR OF THE WORLDS: SECOND WAVE #2 by Michael Alan Nelson & Chee, 32 pg b&w comic ($2.99)

Still an intriguing unofficial follow-up to last summer's less than blockbuster movie, the series falters slightly here. Chee's art, pleasantly reminiscent of Dave Gibbons when at its best, gets more uneven, with monsters and facial close-ups beautifully rendered but more distant figures often stiff and looking more like action figures than people. The story makes a clever parallel between the impending return of the Martians and the breakdown of the hero's marriage but then takes an abrupt turn into post-return survivalism, which suddenly becomes the sole issue in a previously complicating scenario. It's not bad - I liked it well enough - and Nelson's a good, sparse writer who knows how to get emotional effects, but it's almost moving ahead too quickly and too wastefully. (Contrarily, I can't help but think that Bernie Krigstein could have drawn the whole issue, to no less strong effect, in about four pages.)

From Del Rey Manga:

GENSHIKEN Vol 5 by Kio Shimoku, 188 pg b&w trade paperback ($10.95)

More comedic adventures of a Japanese club dedicated to "modern visual culture" - mostly manga, anime, action figures and videogames - and the innocent fetishes that engenders. The plot is almost idiotically lighthearted - as another comics show approaches, Genshiken races to put together their own original comic book to sell - but the characters are great, the dialogue and situations are uniformly funny, the art's damn near flawless, and underneath it all is a fairly serious story about people learning how to accept themselves, get out of their shells, and grow up. Continues to be one of the best manga available.

GURU GURU PON-CHON Vol 4 by Satomi Ikezawa, 188 pg b&w trade paperback ($10.95)

Using a "magic" dog bone, a female dog turns human and falls for a human teenage boy, who falls for her in return. I still don't like it very much, but at least this volume focuses a little on irreconcilable differences between human and dog psychology, leading to the canine heroine choosing to abandon humanity and run away. A pretty shocking ending would seem to be a big punctuation mark, except that it obviously leads to another volume. As usual, pass.

NODAME CANTABILE Vol 5 by Tomoko Ninomiya, 202 pg b&w trade paperback ($10.95)

A gentle romance about young classical music students, this series is far more entertaining than the premise would suggest. The action's low-key - the students face performance challenges while developing a relationship to music and to each other - but it emotionally rings just right (even if the nominal heroine Nodame occasionally comes off as a halfwit), and, for a silent project, it's far better than most at illuminating the siren appeal of beautiful music. Good.

TSUBASA Vol 8 by Clamp, 186 pg b&w trade paperback ($10.95)

I smell a bit of a rut coming on. For the second time in recent memory, our five heroes, traveling through dimensions in search of powerful mystic feathers that hold the heroine's shattered memories, have jumped in mid-adventure from one world to another, but not really. Not much happens here in the way of action - there's lots of big sword fights that always just peter out, and two of the heroes seem to have been possessed, but no significant plot or character advancement - while big overarching plot moments are hinted at but sprinkled in so elliptically they just become maddening, and a little boring. It's decent but it's treading water.

Unfortunately that's all I had time to read this week, and there's a small pile left, so check in next week for the rest. Thanks.

"While I have no guess for the contest, I just have to say that was great to see the X cover included. That was a tremendous series, and for what it's worth, I'd love to see you revisit it sometime. Loved all the "blurry lines" that constituted Arcadia."

That's nice of you to say, and I'm always game for it, but I suspect that, barring Mike selling an X movie or something, the Comics Greatest World properties are things Dark Horse would just as soon never think about again. Though I could be wrong, in which case I'd be the wrong person to write to about it...

"Speaking of the issues of lateness and the uncertainty of mini sales touched on in the current column, do you think 7 SOLDIERS would have sold any better if it were structured as a monthly limited-"maxiseries" anthology rather than a series of one-offs and minis (though still rotating around the central themes and plot points) or do you think that this formatting decision will ultimately help collected volume sales down the road? I ask because the paperback volumes so far seem like they might be kind of buggy and obtuse for people who haven't already gone through all these books once (or several times, as may be the case)."

Honestly, I couldn't begin to hazard a guess. I quite like the experimental structure Morrison concocted, but certainly a maxi-series treatment would have created a more unified image. But that wouldn't necessarily have changed anything. A bigger issue would seem to be the way 7 SOLDIERS was dropped in a sea of event publishing the company deemed more important, if we can go by their promotional strategies, and told to swim. I haven't seen the paperback collections so I can't comment on how well they work.

"Don't know how many people will have emailed this to you, but the problem isn't that Grant hasn't started to write the 7 SOLDIERS#1 script, but that he hasn't finished - At Wondercon this year, he all but admitted that it was going to be hideously late, because his first draft ended up being over 100 pages, and he was having real trouble cutting it all down. There was a comment along the lines of, if he'd realized what he had to tie up in that issue, he would've made it into a mini-series."

Then I don't know why DC didn't. There's no shame in adapting to circumstances, and it's possible it would have ended up a better story done that way. Would've made good promo headlines too. Oh, well.

"Nice write-up of 7 SOLDIERS today. I think it is the best thing DC has put out in awhile and much more interesting than the CRISIS/52/ONE YEAR LATER projects. It is a real shame that 7 SOLDIERS was produced at the same time as all the CRISES were happening. That took a lot of fan and editorial energy away from the project. It also seems like a real editorial mismanagement to let Morrison not put out 7 SOLDIERS 1 close to schedule. But I guess since they view all the CRISIS, Wildstorm and ALL STAR books as more important, they would rather have him focus on that and not care if 7 SOLDIERS is a few months late. With pre-ordering, I imagine DC figures that a project like 7 SOLDIERS wont pick up new readers along the way, so once the books are solicited and ordered, they are kind of finished with the books.

But I don't understand what drives a publisher to put a series out and then have the tail end of it be so late. Did DC just lose interest in the project or is all their focus on all their other books? Too bad the book couldn't have come out either a year earlier or a year later."

It's not like it was done on purpose; I doubt DC either lost interest or were driven to put the final issue out late, and, like I said last week, sometimes these things just happen. But you have to remember at a company like DC, there's a clear promotional pecking order under most circumstances, and projects starring Superman and Batman are going to take precedence over projects starring The Shining Knight and Frankenstein. At least the way the market is built today. (You could even argue that Frankenstein is the logical Soldier to die in the big finale because he's the character DC can't trademark.) It's just a fact of corporate publishing. But, yes, it's a shame 7 SOLDIERS wasn't better timed.

"Saw UNITED 93 last night. Excellent film and bone chilling, because it happened and because I was scheduled to fly myself on September 11th.

The film is excellent and well paced. While there may be too much time spent on the air traffic controllers and not enough on the passengers of the flight itself, it never lets up. while the use of the shaky cam is spent, it works well for this film. It's director never lets it devolve into hyperbole and gives respect to both the subject matter and those who die that day. My story is I was scheduled to fly Sept 11th in the afternoon near Washington DC. I still have the e-mail itinerary. I did go four days later. I saw the Pentagon, which was a sobering experience.

In response to your editorial, my grandfather worked at the same plant for thirty years. That's over. Jack Kirby once remarked that new artists would come to him and say what they were going to do with Captain America, but would never last more than three months. The advent of the star fueled by WIZARD and Image can actually have merit, if quality is consistent. But it never is, because it all goes to their head, and they forget it's about the story, not them..."

By the late '80s, I was having artists tell me readers no longer cared about stories or storytelling...

Apparently UNITED 93 hits quite a few emotional chords, but the thing to remember about the film is that it's fiction. (Everyone should remember that about THE DA VINCI CODE, too. If I never have another person ask me about the Priori di Sion again, it'll be too soon...) No one knows what happened on United 93. I tend to have difficulty with the "heroic" version, especially if we're talking about a planeload of people facing off against a handful of terrorists armed with box cutters. I realize they're sharp and potentially bloody, but box cutters? Then there's the "conspiracy theory" version of events - you know, the one that doesn't jibe with the "official" version - where witnesses on the ground claim to have seen other planes in 93's vicinity and heard an explosion overhead before 93 crashed, which would suggest the Air Force shot it down. Which would have been a perfectly appropriate response. Sure, the Air Force would have come out of the day looking vaguely ept in that version, but the Air Force sacrificing innocent civilians just doesn't play as mythically as the "heroic passengers" myth, which UNITED 93 plays to unabashedly. And, as Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch can tell you, we live in a time of myth.

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.

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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