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Issue #254

SAN DIEGO DREAMS AND REFLECTIONS: a rare treat for PERMANENT DAMAGE readers - optimism

NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARDS: 52 and CIVIL WAR, missing reviews, cover challenges, interview, store, more

Sure, there were the usual slew of "announcements," but whose going to be guest-starring in this comic or debuting in that one just blurs into an amorphous mass. With something like 130,000 in attendance - for those five days the San Diego convention center had a larger population than many counties in California - the show seemed like an answer to the column I wrote about Anime Expo a couple weeks back: there was tons of genuine enthusiasm, for new product, American and Japanese both, with comics retaking the stage alongside movies, TV, games and toys. I don't know how back issue dealers were doing, though things always seemed lively in those quarters, and even Artists Alley, traditionally a sort of skid row of the convention, was wildly hopping almost every time I passed through. Thursday was the relatively quiet day; Sunday, traditionally a dead zone, was a bloody madhouse. One publisher complained it was much more difficult than in other years to Sunday wholesale titles to retailers, not because the retailers were disinterested but because they were finally already regularly stocking his product, a clearly new state of existence for him. Even the panel I was on, the usual "writer's panel," which commonly sees sparse attendance, was SRO-packed, and the audience was hot with questions; we could easily have run two hours instead of one without a lag. A producer I work with mentioned the place was crawling with Hollywood people even more than usual, and plenty of them came around during the two signings I did, asking questions and leaving their business cards, and the parties were just as often thrown by media companies as comics companies.

Good convention personally, as well. There are two things people always say to me (and every other professional) at San Diego. At the beginning it's "are you having fun?" and at the end it's "So how was your convention?" The answer to the first is that for professionals, San Diego is not "fun." It's not at home, sure, but it's still part of the job, and an increasingly large part of the job since it's one of the view places you can speak to pretty much every publisher in the business. For many of us, it's face-to-face networking, a job fair where contacts and tentative deals are made. Which leads to the answer to the other question: "I'll know in two or three weeks." That's when we find out if what we discussed in San Diego is ever likely to happen.

For me, there are two types of San Diego Con - the ones where publishers and editors say, "Oh, god, here he comes, pretend you don't see him!" and the ones where they say, "Come over, we want to talk to you" - and there's no way of telling which it'll be until you get there. This year, for me, it was the latter. Whether that translates into a new presence on the stands over the next year, it's too early to tell, but it's promising. I wasn't the only one who felt that, either. The spirit of the industry seems to have shifted slightly, not only toward the positive but away from the familiar and toward the more experimental, a trend you can see even at the core of the traditional, in books like DC's 52 and (much moreso) in Marvel's CIVIL WAR. There also seems to be a strong trend away from superheroes, at least traditional ones; publishers and editors were asking for everything but. (Which is too bad because I have two strange superhero ideas I'm dying to do, but that's how it goes.)

Encouragingly, plenty of you readers said hi - in elevators, bathrooms, bars, supermarkets and restaurants - so thanks. I also finally met John Paul Leon, my collaborator on CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN in the '90s, who I'd never been in touch with and had waited a decade to tell how great his work on that book was. (Check out his WINTER MEN at Wildstorm if you haven't; he's still one of the unsung greats of the business.) My funniest, if most embarrassing, moment was chatting for ten minutes with Ed Brubaker before asking him who he was; sporting a fairly full head of hair, he looked shorter, more slender and considerably less hairless than the last (and only) time I saw him. But I've gotten to the point of having no shame in checking badges or asking names, particularly if people start talking to me like we're old buddies. (There are many people I recognize, of course, but when you only see people for fifteen minutes once a year and then you see a hell of a lot of them, it's not hard to have forgotten what they look like a year later.)

Most encouraging, I think, was how pleasantly most of the pros were treating the fans, a dramatic shift from the rudeness and disdain that had become earmarks of professional behavior at conventions. (Something else I commented on in the Anime Fest column.) There was, if nothing else, a much stronger sense than in previous years that, yes, we are all in this together, not just pros and readers, but professionals, fans, retailers, filmmakers, book publishers, toy companies, etc. There's a weird synergism coalescing, a new focus on multilevel strategy and alliances, as epitomized by Marvel sharing a booth with Activision, but that was hardly the only example. After a long stretch of incremental and sporadic movement in the comics business, there's a sense that things are on the verge of rapidly changing, if we're not in the process already.

I want to thank everyone who made San Diego a treat this year: the publishers who gave me a base at their booths, the editors and producers who fed and listened to me, fellow professionals and fans who entertained and flattered me, and particularly fellow Las Vegans Bill Willingham and James Hudnall, who helped out spectacularly. It was a really active show; I was there longer than usual and for the first time in living memory I barely had a free moment.

And, in a San Diego first, the air conditioning in the convention hall worked really well.

All in all, a spectacular show that lays to rest any complaints that Comic-Con International has grown beyond usefulness or is no longer relevant to the comics business. This year it confirmed that in many ways it is the comics business. Now comes the hard part of firming up the deals and getting the work done, but I'm already looking forward to next year.

Not a lot to discuss, since San Diego took up all my time and this is the afterburn week when everyone in comics blows up, so there's not a lot really going on right now either. I did have a chat with a retailer shortly before San Diego who told me Marvel's CIVIL WAR has been selling much better for him than DC's 52, mainly, as far as he can tell, because when casual buyers walk in and ask him about them, CIVIL WAR can be described, and made to sound interesting, in a couple of sentences, and 52 can't. I've been reading (and, for the most part, enjoying) both, but I see his point. While I wouldn't call either breakthroughs, I also think CIVIL WAR is the more adventurous of the two stylistically; visually and in its storytelling rhythms, 52, whether consciously or unconsciously, reiterates the style and pacing of Marv Wolfman & George Perez's NEW TEEN TITANS, giving it a vaguely throwback feel.

I was going to do a lot of reviews this week, but ended up writing the political rant instead; timing is everything. Sorry about that. Next week, I promise.

Congratulations to JM Campbell, who correctly guessed the secret theme of last week's Comics Cover Challenge was "swords." Check out JM's Geek 4x4 Comics And Entertainment Podcast.

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.) I usually include a clue to the theme somewhere in the column, and this week's no different, though you'll only see it in the right light.

Jason Green has an interview with me about CSI: DYING IN THE GUTTERS (the first issue is out now, though IDW - I never even found their booth - didn't have copies at San Diego) online at Playback:stl

I'm also in the process of updating my website, starting with an expanded Paper Movies Store, which features all of my work currently available at Amazon. Check it out, particularly if you've been considering buying some of my stuff but haven't gotten around to it. Interesting information gleaned while searching Amazon: Marvel's not only packaging a ton of my older, most embarrassing work but a hardcover edition of THE PUNISHER: CIRCLE OF BLOOD is scheduled for November. So where the hell is a reissue of the long out-of-print (and, let's face it, far superior to CIRCLE OF BLOOD) PUNISHER: RETURN TO BIG NOTHING?

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

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.

War is the happy place of fundamentalism of all stripes; all wars become holy wars. Opponents are demonized, dehumanized, opponents without and within - and that includes anyone who says wait a minute, or maybe there's another way, because to a fundamentalist to advocate another way suggests it might be a better way, and "a better way" just isn't in their vocabulary. Other ways are reduced to delusion, obstructionism. Fundamentalism, any breed, is about the elimination of all possibilities but one: the one they accept and want universally accepted.

Which is one of the things, I think, so far keeping most Arab nations out of the fray and World War III out of the picture, as Israel rolls into Lebanon. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the countries that easily could (and, in the past, have, not that it has usually done them a lot of good) flank Israel on its south and west, have their own fundamentalist problems, and sizable populations desirous of governments far more willing to carry out "the will of Allah." These were stirred up in 1991 when those governments chose to help America drive Saddam out of Kuwait, and again in 2003 when those governments made only the feeblest attempt to protest the American invasion of Iraq. Any war against Israel - demonized in fundamentalist Islam on its own merits, in addition to being an expression of "Western Powers" in the Middle East (though, really, Israel is by now something apart from "Western Powers" though mostly hand-in-hand with them, and are hardly puppets of the United States; if anything, the tail wags that particular dog) - stands an extremely good chance of radicalizing both Islamic populations and Islamic militaries, with a good political outcome only a slight possibility amid a bevy of unsavory ones: victory over Israel encourages the radicalized populations toward new victories, i.e. overthrowing their "corrupt" governments; defeat by Israel disgruntles even larger Islamic populations, who'll find a message of hope and eventual victory in Islamic fundamentalism and expand their ranks (not that there aren't other philosophies that might offer hope, but how would they get exposed to them?); those governments get increasingly repressive to "quell unrest," which turns even more people toward Islamic fundamentalism.

It's not a matter of starting the ball rolling - it's been rolling for years - but in giving it crushing momentum. We've been witnessing the results of such a thing in Iraq; imagine the whole Middle East (except maybe Iran and a couple of Gulf States) in similar condition. We've already learned in more than one locale (Iraq only being the latest) that military force has severe limitations once the enemy is not another military force but an angry or vengeful civilian population. This may be why Israel chose to shell Beirut in mid-Lebanon despite Israel's Hezbollan targets ostensibly being based - essentially an independent nation - in southern Lebanon, near Israel's northern border: a costly warning to Lebanon's civilians to keep their provincial noses out of it.

What's surprising isn't that Israel has invaded Lebanon, but that it took them so long. Israel's leaders were clearly excited the instant the Hand Puppet's administration sanctioned the concept of "pre-emptive war," and it was likely only the USA's concerns about reaction to a more or less simultaneous invasion of Iraq and Lebanon, as well as the presence of Syrian troops in the latter, that temporarily dampened their enthusiasm. As the bombs and tanks rolled out last week, so did echoes of our own Iraq policy: Israel chastised Lebanon for "hosting" Hezbollah and Hamas the same way we claimed Saddam "hosted" al-Qaeda, though Iraq didn't house them except in regions we had put out of Saddam's control and Hezbollah and Hamas are probably better armed and trained than what passes for the Lebanese military; and Israel announced their intention, as we did in Iraq, not to "occupy" Lebanon but to be there only as long as it takes to get the job done and then withdraw. However many years that may be. (The linguistic gymnastics are fascinating: extended military presence in a nation against the wishes of that nation's populace has ceased to be an "occupation," while "pre-emptive war" turns aggression into defense, allowing the USA to supply Israel with new bombs to drop on Lebanon even though the law prohibits us from supplying weapons to any nation except for purposes of defense - but "pre-emption" is considered, by the White House at least, a defensive, not offensive, option.)

What has surely not escaped Middle Eastern nations is what would be between an Israel-dominated Lebanon and an American-dominated Iraq: Syria, which has been targeted (verbally, at least) by both countries as the sponsor of Hezbollah and Hamas on the one hand and giving aid and succor to Iraqi insurgents on the other. (The former charge is openly admitted to by the Syrians, the latter the product of evidence-free saber rattling by the Hand Puppet's administration. And apparently the US government's philosophy on funding and supplying factions that sneak attack countries from across the borders of their neighboring countries has changed dramatically since the Reagan administration was breaking the law to funnel all aid necessary to the Contras in the 1980s.) Should warrior eyes turn to Syria, which has not only been going out of its way to not antagonize the United States but has been cheerfully providing its services to the CIA for the brutal interrogations of "rendered" terror war suspects, any resulting confrontation will almost certainly force the hands of every nation in the region, and Europe, and much of Asia, and so on. You can build all the little scenarios you like: an attack on Syria brings Iran into the fight, Russia and China back Iran, India backs China while Pakistan sticks with its current anti-terror partner America, and suddenly India and Pakistan, never far from it at the best of times, start lobbing nukes at each other. China moves against Pakistan on behalf of India, while North Korea moves against US allies South Korea and Japan on behalf of China. And so forth.

Is such a scenario likely? Dunno. Is it possible? Sure is.

But that's the problem with these things, as the world learned to its regret in 1914, and Americans have learned several times over in intervening eras: once some jackass has kicked events into motion, personal politics become irrelevant. The CIA may have pulled many escapades in many foreign lands over the last 50+ years, but the citizens of those lands aren't all that interested in exonerating individual Americans of the CIA's actions, just as most of us aren't very interested in distinguishing "good" Iranians from "bad." Discussion, logic, alternative viewpoints quickly become irrelevancy during wartime; suddenly none are as important as "supporting the troops," which translates as "win the war first, then worry about the rest of it." Because when it comes right down to it, what's more important to many Americans than anything else is that Americans hate to lose. (But so does everyone!) Winning as the most important thing in itself is just as much fundamentalism as anything else. Fundamentalism has been the fodder of war machines from time immemorial, feeding a notion of purity that is mainly applied to whitewash violence and still dissent. This "purity" of the fundamentalist approach is a wonderfully double-edged sword. As mentioned above, in victory it becomes the cause of victory - the will of the populace, politicians and military to stick to the "true" path - and in defeat it becomes the betrayed ideal that becomes a litmus test to identify "traitors" and a torch to light the way to an eventual victory after all.

Some years ago, I described Beirut, after it fell apart and before they negotiated a tenuous peace between factions and rebuilt the place, as the paradigm of the 21st century, a vision friends scoffed at, mainly because it seemed incomprehensible. But now Beirut is in shambles again and factionalism is running wild (as it is in Iraq, where the central part of the country is now engaged in pretty much all out civil war, despite American news crews doing their best to avoid any mention of it), and my vision seems all too real again. Especially with an American government increasingly influenced by fundamentalist Christianity (and the real nutcase Christian fundamentalists have their own vision of the Middle East, as a place where the battle of Armageddon ushers in the second coming of Christ, as foretold in the Book Of Revelations), an Israeli government dominated by fundamentalist Judaism that has all but silenced any liberal Jewish voices in that country and to some extent this one, where liberal Jews used to be at the forefront of most progressive social change, and fundamentalist Islam rushing into collision with each other. With a whole bunch of other fundamentalisms - political, religious, social, educational - trying to hop on for the wild ride.

We're all on the ride, too, because they all see themselves as the only possible future. Unless we stand up and make sure they're not running the game, or, if they're already running the game, someone, a lot of someones, decides they're simply not going to play. Because the "only possible future" just isn't much of a future after all.

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.

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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