Issue #250

DOG DAYS OF SUMMER: no pun intended, but plenty about the current direction of comics or lack thereof

SOUNDS OF SILENCE: turning my back on turning my back on music criticism

BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE: turn and face the strange ch-ch-changes


Not to crap on Oni - I'm only picking them because they've got something of a hit on their hands at the moment, at least among the cognoscenti, so they make a good example - when was the last time you heard anyone mention an Oni book that wasn't SCOTT PILGRIM? And when was the last time you heard someone mention Oni when they mentioned SCOTT PILGRIM? You can say in the "real world" of book publishing there aren't fans of publishers, which is an argument often used in comics for why there shouldn't be Marvel zombies and such (if Marvel has zombies, does DC have ghouls?) and it's true that there are no book publishers with "fans" in the way Marvel has fans, but most book publishers do try to generate reputations, so that readers, booksellers, reviewers, librarians, etc., can approach them with a modicum of trust. That benefit of the doubt may not be especially pronounced in most cases, but it does exist and it does mean money in the bank to publishers who can achieve it. Which is why it's a big deal if someone, oh, publishes as autobiography a book later revealed as mostly fiction. Why book publishers hire editors they believe they can trust to maintain a base level of literary quality in the books they publish. (The base may vary from publisher to publisher but the principle remains the same.)

Why "self-publishing" (AKA vanity press) in the book world is (not always correctly) greeted with derision, because it implies the author was not able to clear even the lowest standards of quality publishers, which in many cases aren't all that high to start with.

Aside from a couple blips, there's not even that much going on in manga, which was the big galvanizing force in comics just a couple years ago. This isn't so much a function of the mythical manga "balloon" popping (much as many American publishers and talents wish it to justify their "business as usual/stay the course" response to the manga invasion) as that manga itself is now "business as usual." It has settled in for the long haul, no longer a novelty but an industry, with, unfortunately, the downside of being an industry as well; while many books per month appear and apparently sell well enough, there's now enough density of product that it's difficult for any unestablished new series to make that big a splash. Which isn't stopping the spread of manga - the primary markets are high school and college kids and they do very well proselytizing to friends, something comics companies might want to note - but it limits the number of "explosions."

But now I'm told there's a "crime comics" movement afoot, given the continued success of Vertigo's 1OO BULLETS, the recent success of Warren Ellis' FELL and DESOLATION JONES (though Warren remains sort of an industry unto himself and I'm not sure what occurs with Ellis books reflects on non-Ellis books at all, the same way you can't count any Frank Miller successes as indicators of trends), the advent of new crime comics by SLEEPER's Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips, CRIMINAL (from Marvel's Icon line) and Mike Oeming & Ivan Brandon's THE CROSS BRONX (from Image), as well as one company theoretically starting up a line of crime graphic novels. I wish them all luck, I'd love to do more crime comics myself. But this resembles the recent "boom" in announced western comics, with several companies (notably Marvel) announcing a lot of westerns - but not much indication there's a profitably-sized fan base out there that would sustain a growing number of titles, despite the success of a few westerns. (I presume both JONAH HEX and LOVELESS are still going at DC, but I rarely run across mention of them.) It seems most comics creators would love to do a western (including me; my RED SUNSET is theoretically still being drawn, but I haven't had an update on it in months) the same way seemingly everyone who starts writing for Marvel wants to do a DR. STRANGE project while there's little indication many existing comics readers give a rat's ass about Dr. Strange, something sales on DR. STRANGE projects have borne out practically forever. Likewise, where's the proof there's a strong audience for crime comics? Certainly not SLEEPER, which, despite superhero affectations, was about as complex and satisfying a crime story as has existed in any medium; it had to tread water for months just to finish out its relatively brief run.

Which isn't to say there couldn't be a market for crime comics - hell, there should be - but at this point it's going to take several things. Just publishing "crime comics" isn't enough. As with Crossgen's failed "heroic fantasy" comics, it's not enough to tap into an alternate genre, you have to give the existing fans of that genre - who most likely aren't already comics fans - something they can't get in the genre's existing format. Which takes a little more creativity and effort than comics' standard approach of "of course it's different, it might be the same thing but it's in comics format!" (NICK FURY, AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D. is the poster boy for this mentality: "it's James Bond and THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. in the Marvel Universe!" And...?) What's also needed for any movement is a center for that movement; I suspect for crime comics to really catch on and hit critical mass, some publisher will have to generate a crime comics line (though, lord help us, not a universe) and be willing to support it at a loss for a substantial time. Of course, what's really needed to convince a large audience of the value of crime comics is a killer ap: the one book that nobody will want to pass up. (In such a way, CRIME DOES NOT PAY launched crime comics in the '40s, and, as I recently reiterated on another site, remained successful enough through the mid-'50s (by which time, someone else mentioned, the superhero genre was pretty much dead as dirt) that it became one of the comics The Comics Code was founded specifically to put out of business.) SIN CITY should have been that killer ap when it first appeared in the early '90s; it could have been that killer ap last year when the SIN CITY movie was making waves, but there was a dearth of other material to point SIN CITY newcomers toward and the opportunity was pissed away.

In other words, unless there's something shockingly brilliant and utterly irresistible on the horizon, throwing projects against the wall to see what sticks just isn't a good enough publishing plan anymore. For any material. A much more conscious, progressive approach is necessary: generate focal material of extraordinary quality, promote the living hell out of it, use it to bridge to similar material and conscientiously build an audience. Over time. Anything else, short of a fluke or a miracle, will just generate more cancellations, bad will and the audience impression that that particular pool is shallow and polluted.

But maybe I needn't be so concerned about what's happening in comics this week. Alan Moore's neo-Victorian porn graphic novel LOST GIRLS is entertainingly kicking up bits of fuss, with various articles in the legit press and some retailers and fans talking about how it will bring the wrath of The Righteous down on all our heads, a familiar mantra among those who want to roll over and play dead anytime controversial comics material gets published. There's also a hilarious discussion of LOST GIRLS on John Byrne's board on the subject (it can be accessed through Rich Johnston's column this week), where most of the participants play as crybabies apparently oblivious to the irony of complaining about Alan's "misuse" of other people's characters on the forum of someone (this is just an observation, John, not a criticism) who has spent most of his career revamping other people's characters, notably Jack Kirby's. And SUPERMAN RETURNS opens today, so we're saved, right? I considered seeing it, despite my dislike of the earlier SUPERMAN films, until I discussed BLADE TRINITY, which I recently saw, with a producer I know. I mentioned how Parker Posey, an actress I generally like, went through BLADE TRINITY like she was doing another intentionally gawky improv role in a Christopher Guest comedy. My producer friend suggested it was obvious that even she knew it wasn't the right role for her, and said she's similarly misused in the new SUPERMAN film - and this next bit was what sent my blood running cold - in the Valerie Perrine role!

That a "Valerie Perrine role" (those who've seen the '70s SUPERMAN movies know what I'm talking about) even exists is a bad, bad sign. Remember the good old days when people protested that Hollywood films aren't reverential enough. Then they have to go and be reverential about all the wrong things...

Lastly, since it is convention season, and someone over at Warren's Engine asked what writers were looking for in art from aspiring artists, I figured I'd run my reply here (The discussion has good answers from several others too.):

Draw real people in real clothing, and draw them well. It's a lot harder than drawing Playboy inflatable women and superawesome he-men, but if you can draw ordinary people well you shouldn't have any problem drawing the ultracliches.

Backgrounds, in proportion.

Draw sequences of three or more whole comics pages, not splash pages or pin-up pages and not one page of this and one page of that. All those tell me is you can fake a page or draw a pin-up, not whether your storytelling and your story sense are any good.

Draw figures so they can be easily recognizable from panel to panel, draw them in the correct proportions, and keep those proportions identical from panel to panel.

Maintain a steady light source in a panel (i.e., make sure your figures/backgrounds aren't shaded from more than one direction at a time unless there's more than one light source in play) and maintain the integrity of that light source throughout the sequence unless the source changes as a story function.

Think dynamically. Really think about camera angle, shading, what will give the shot the most emotional impact for story purposes.

A personal one: draw pretty. Draw work that makes me want to see more of it. I'm dog tired of ugly comics art.

Basically, I want you to go look at the work of the best comics artists in the world. Then draw better than them.

Simple, right?

Know what I realized after writing that? I am dog tired of ugly art. Fact is, an awful lot of comics today have ugly art, and I'm not talking creative ugly like S. Clay Wilson or the Pander Brothers, which can be perversely attractive on its own terms and at any rate presents a genuinely interesting vision, I'm talking ugly ugly. No vision ugly. Here's the thing, and I suspect this applies to many: if I want to see really ugly art, I can draw my own comics.

I don't want to see any more ugly art. Let's start a purge. (Yeah, yeah, glass houses, I know...)

Sorry... a little stream of consciousness thing going there...

It's complicated. Mainly I don't listen to a lot of "modern" music. I once told Bob Schreck the difference between our generation and our parents' generation is that when they heard the music we were listening to they said, "Oh, how awful, that isn't music!" and when we hear what our "kids"' (I always love it when some talk show host or pundit condescendingly refers to "The Kids" with arch overemphasis, like they're talking about specimens in some demented freak show) music, we think, "Y'know, it was better the first time." Like if I'm unfortunate enough to switch on the car radio while whatsisname is singing "You had a bad day," whatever it's called, all I can think is that this guy is the modern Gilbert O'Sullivan. (For those who came in late, a hideously maudlin twerp whose morose, "sensitive" tripe scarred the airwaves in the early '70s.) But that's pop music, which is almost enforcedly retrograde these days, though occasionally something interesting slips out, like The Killers or The Dresden Dolls or the Black Eyed Peas. But even on the "cutting edge" side, there's very little new material that I hear that has made any significant strides over what was being done 20-25 years ago, when, via TROUSER PRESS and OPTION, I heard a hell of a lot of music across the spectrum (which isn't to say it's not out there, but it hasn't filtered down to me). There's very little being done with electronica, for instance, that doesn't walk where Cabaret Voltaire had already trod by the time their "breakout hit," Sensoria, came out.

In fact, most of the music I listen to with any frequency is old, and fairly obscure. Today, while writing this column, I ran through PAULINE MURRAY AND THE INVISIBLE GIRLS and Cowboys International's ORIGINAL SIN. Yesterday I had Dave Alvin and Karlheinz Stockhausen on at different times. I still love hearing about this music, but it bothers me to write about it now, because I can't write about most of it without sounding like one of those conservative "culture news" creeps complaining about the cultural deterioration of America, which isn't the point at all.

For example, yesterday on some morning show I caught some psychologist talking earnestly about how Americans are growing desperately lonely due to lack of human contact brought on by technological advances such as the Internet and instant text messaging. It seems to me, having heard similar arguments about every single new technology to come along since I was old enough to pay attention to the commentary, which would have been around 1967, that the psychologist was missing an essential point, probably because grasping that point would have undermined her argument: many people who are used to older technologies - their sociotechnological baseline - at the introduction of a new technology do, in fact, tend to feel dislocated by the newer technology, with various attendant psychological disruptions, but those who grow up concurrent to the newer technology incorporate it as their sociotechnological baseline and adapt their behavior and expectations to it. So, for instance, while someone in their 40s might feel text messages to be ephemeral and impersonal, an inadequate substitute for "real connection," a teenager might see them as shorthand for it, a completely satisfactory connection a 40 year old wouldn't have the tools to interpret. This sort of thing is in a very real way a generation gap, with both the 40 year old and the teenager accepting their perception as the "natural" state of things. The 40 year old (or a psychologist) might place a heavy emphasis on preserving something they feel is valuable and at risk of passing away, while the teenager might see little special value in it at all. But what both have in common is that they perceive their own baseline is the point of value, which is why people tend to grow more conservative as they grow older: the baseline that is radical at 15 is retrograde at 50, when it has already been replaced by another baseline whether the 50 year old cares to admit it or not.

My problem with modern music isn't that I haven't the tools to interpret it, but that I have. My problem isn't that it doesn't sound enough like what I was hearing 25 years or more ago, but that it sounds too much like it. So what's in it for me?

Beyond that, music is a badge for people, moreso than any other medium or art is, and most people very early on develop very strong prejudices about their music. When I was in high school, you could subdivide students by who listened to Iron Butterfly and who listened to the Velvet Underground. The London punk scene of '76-'77 even subdivided by whether you preferred the Sex Pistols or The Clash, with lots of "poser" accusations hurled around (though I'm sure most listened to both) and those accusations still hang on a million other bands today. Music is a topic people use to try to pigeonhole you; they extrapolate, say, being a Dwight Yoakam fan (I am) to being a country music fan (I'm not) and work out whole sets of idiotic assumptions based on the extrapolation. The question is whether it's worth the aggravation. Fact is, I listen to bits and pieces of just about everything except disco, and I'd still listen to that if I had a copy of Nanette Workman's IF IT WASN'T FOR THE MONEY.

As with comics or anything else, genre really is meaningless in the long run. It's a cheat for marketers, and has no special meaning outside marketing. To repeat a favorite Raymond Chandler quote: "There is no 'good art' or 'bad art.' There is only art, and precious little of it." There's no style of music so bad that something good can't come out of it, though polka comes close, but without polka you wouldn't get most of the music to come out of Mexico in the last century.

But if music connects with you, it connects, and not always on a level easily dissected in terms of art or taste, and those aren't always the best judgment guidelines to apply. Music criticism gets more convoluted than other types of criticism. And after a couple decades of writing music criticism, by the end of I felt more and more of a gulf between what I was enjoying about music and what I was writing about it. (Or, as I wrote in a TROUSER PRESS article about Joy Division shortly after Ian Curtis' death, if everything could be described in words we wouldn't need music.) So I more or less decided at the time it would be much more pleasant to simply enjoy music, part of which means not having to explain my tastes to others, whether I'm listening to Neko Case or Diamanda Galas.

Now, though, I'm thinking maybe I should go back to it. Just for those people who don't think my politics are extreme enough...

For those who think I've been making up stuff about the White House's obsessive deceptiveness and secrecy, remember that bill John McCain pushed through awhile back, with overwhelming support from both houses of Congress, to curtail use of torture as a tool of foreign policy? It was watered down almost into incoherence by the time Congress passed it, but signing it into law did provide the Hand Puppet with a very publicized opportunity to prove just what a compassionate conservative he really was. Considerably less publicized - in fact, not publicized, especially to Congress - was the presidential order the Hand Puppet signed almost simultaneously a "signing statement," legally no more than an opinion but held by the White House to have the force of law, declaring that he was under no obligation to follow that law.

And it now comes out, as Republican Arlen Specter (who, having been a force in Senate investigations into Watergate, knows something about presidential abuses and possible impeachments) initiates a Senate hearing into the practice, that the Hand Puppet routinely writes off passed legislation with "signing statements," even while signing the legislation into law. The object? To prevent Congress from having the opportunity to override a Presidential veto, and from the sound of things the White House must be pretty afraid veto overrides would be common. It's the equivalent of a little kid making promises with his fingers crossed behind his back, and saying "nyah-nyah" when caught at it. What this amounts to is more than simply a recurring reinforcement of White House belief that the President and all who sail with him are above the law, it's an executive usurpation of legislative power. In other words, an impeachable offense, one of many this Administration has routinely committed, often with the collaboration, unwitting or otherwise, of Congress.

Then again, we are in a war on terror, and who has time to waste on following the law? Especially when the Cell That Couldn't Shoot Straight is shoelessly practicing calisthenics in Florida (funny how much of this stuff takes place in Florida, considering the Hand Puppet's little brother runs the place) and dreaming of taking down the Sears Tower. Not that the FBI shouldn't investigate possible terrorism - certainly it should - but the attempt to pass these pathetic clowns off as a major scare that should get us all worked up was laughable, which ended up being the most widespread response to the situation. The "war on terror," which in Administration hands is, like everything else in their hands, a license to do whatever they please and siphon public money into the pockets of whomever they choose (and calling them on it is just damn unpatriotic), also popped up when the New York Times revealed (and I thought, wait, didn't I hear about this four years ago?) the CIA has been tracking bank transactions in their never-ending battle against the forces of terrorism everywhere, which, according to the Administration, jeopardizes the "war on terror." Meaning we're back on a Cold War footing when the enemy (in that case, Russia) was well aware of our moves but what was important was keeping those moves unknown to the American public. Amusingly, an Administration spokesman tsked about the newspapers should place a higher value on the risks to human life than on making information public, but I don't recall the White House following that moral line when they blew covert CIA agent Valerie Plame's cover to exact a little petty vengeance against her husband, the ambassador whose research blew one of their war claims against Iraq out of the water. Presumably that involved human life, too, though obviously not the 50,000+ Iraqis it is now admitted have been killed since we started our little overseas adventure. Presumably the same high sense of morality will eventually be shown by our UN ambassador John Bolton, who flat out told London's FINANCIAL TIMES we have no intention of reaching any accord whatsoever with Iran, so it looks like when we move our troops out of Iraq that's where we'll be moving them to. No wonder the Hand Puppet had to take his jaunt "over there" for a photo op with what passes for the Iraqi government. Hours earlier, the Hand Puppet had made the statement that it will be up to the Iraqis as to when we'll get out of Iraq; does anyone really believe it was sheer coincidence that on the heels of his visit the Iraqi government suddenly announces a broad initiative to move more Iraqis into defense positions, negotiate a peace, and "allow" American soldiers to go home? (Presumably circa mid-October.)

Anyway, the FBI's "apprehension" of the Florida cell, before which the group was moronic enough to believe they were talking with al-Qaeda instead of an FBI operative because, as we all know, al-Qaeda can easily be reached on the phone, has strange overtones of similar operations in the late '60s and early '70s against groups like AIM, the Black Panthers, and various peace and civil rights groups, and I'll be intrigued to see the first independent study of the case, if one will ever be possible under the Administration's increasingly Draconian secrecy rules, because the whole operation seems reminiscent of Vietnam-era Cointelpro schemes where undercover agents would infiltrate organizations as agent provocateurs and prod them toward violent behavior. If nothing else, an awful lot of highly placed people in "radical" organizations turn out to be FBI informants. (Meanwhile, in Canada, papers like Toronto's Globe And Mail are questioning whether the "terrorists," the ones supposedly plotting to blow up the Canadian Parliament, rounded up last month by triumphant Canadian security forces might have less to do with terrorism than with the Canadian security forces' contemporaneous push in Parliament for much increased funding.)

Not that we're regressing back to the '60s. The way the Supreme Court's going, it's more than the '50s, if not the '20s, starting with them giving police carte blanche to smash their way into homes and businesses without announcing themselves without tainting evidence if they happen to forget to announce themselves. No point in penalizing them for boyish enthusiasm, after all. Not that there's anything to worry about; I heard one police representative declare that public opinion will keep police in line. Meanwhile, the court has also opted to relax restrictions on the death penalty, basically agreeing with a lower court that if there's indecision between life imprisonment or the death penalty, jurors must opt for the death penalty. At least in Kansas, but other states were waiting for the results. Funny how all those right wingers who were howling not long ago about "activist judges" are keeping mum now. But maybe they're too busy setting up cases to drive up to the Supreme Court to challenge existing law.

One such situation arose recently in my own hometown of Henderson NV, where a high school valedictorian had her microphone cut off while she tried to ramble on about the glories of Jesus during a graduation speech. Quite shockingly, her lawyer and pastor were both there for the event. (As with all the other students who gave speeches at graduation, her speech had gone through editing and approvals by the school administration that she had agreed to, but this was obviously a ploy to give her the opportunity to get her microphone cut.) Presumably the case, should it go all the way to the Supreme Court, is intended to backdoor prayer back into school, and the logical argument would follow that this would open the door to someone thanking Satan for making them tops in their class by crushing their enemies, or, as someone in the local paper put it today, "if she tried to say her mind was not cluttered by religion and her lack of belief in God was responsible for her higher grades." But that's missing the point of the Fundamentalist Christian view of free speech: "free speech" means they should not only have the right to proclaim The True Religion anywhere, but to do it everywhere (for a country where theoretically all these Christians are being brutally oppressed, I certainly hear a lot of people praising Jesus at every turn, and I've never even seen anyone hit them for it), the True Religion being whatever variant they happen to adhere to, and free speech protection does not apply to other religions because God prohibits it. (There ain't no right to proclaim a false religion nohow.) The perky valedictorian has apparently become quite the popular fixture on the religious/right wing radio circuit but here in Henderson the response has generally been vaguely tolerant amusement.

On a closing note, because, as the above indicates, all politics are local, some woman's running here in Nevada for lt. governor with an entertaining TV ad where she spits out, "Americans are a compassionate people, but enough is enough!" before vowing to crush illegal aliens if elected, then concluding with "What values are we teaching our children?!" Hmmm... xenophobia and self-exonerating intolerance would be my guess. Does anyone on these campaigns actually listen to this stuff before they air it?

Heading out to Anime Fest in Anaheim for the weekend. It'll be good to get away for awhile to somewhere nothing's expected of me. No, it's not an official appearance, more along the lines of personal business.

No one got the last Comics Cover Challenge (two weeks ago) so I can let you in on the secret theme: there was none. The covers were picked more or less randomly, and I'm kind of surprised no SEINFELD fans picked up on that not particularly subtle clue. Seems to me I planted another one, but, oh well. The good news is that I can never pull that again now.

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.) Unlike last time, this one's easy. I usually put some clue to the theme somewhere in the column, but this week I'll pay you the supreme compliment of assuming you don't need one. But if you do, there is one.

Of course, if you haven't pestered your retailer to order WHISPER #0 from Boom! Studios (they can find it in the Boom! section of the PREVIEWS catalog), this is the time. Orders are due in. While you're at it, pester them to order CSI: DYING IN THE GUTTERS from IDW; even Joe Quesada's recommending it in his Marvel site blog - but that might be because his pretty face is plastered all over it.

Available in pdf e-book form at Paper Movies and The Paper Movies Store:

TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my "Master Of The Obvious" columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.

IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS VOL 1. Collecting my political commentary of the early terror years, from Sept. 2001 through April 2005, revealing the terror behind the War On Terror.

HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.

That's it for this week. Thanks to everyone who sent condolences for the death of my dog. I appreciate it.

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.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

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.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, 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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