Issue #256

NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARD: the week of living physically

THE BRITISH ARE GOING, THE BRITISH ARE GOING: a brief season highlighted by BBC America fades into memory

RHYME AND REASON: comments and suggestions on the potential copyright crisis

Another short column this week, I'm afraid. Spent most of the last week ripping all the grass from my yard to replace it with crushed desert rock, as is the fashion here in the drought-stricken southwest. People are finally getting it through their heads that there's no reason to turn the desert green, and it's cheaper and more ecological not to. I still need to plant some cactus, but that's a winter activity around here. Planting new growth in the dead of summer in Nevada is crazy. Also killed much of the week trying, without success, to establish a wireless network between a 98SE laptop and an XP desktop. Well, with half success: I've got the network up and running, the computers recognize that they're connected, but neither will register the existence of the other's drives. If any techies out there have any hot tips on this, I'd love to hear them. (Before you ask, yes, the network on both has the same name, each computer has a different name, I've set up the IP addresses and enabled Netbios over TCP/IP, etc, and the adapters are compatible models from the same product line from the same company. And I did it all with the firewalls removed. Still nada.) Meanwhile, something has blown out on another computer and I haven't been able to figure out what yet, because the power supply I've got to replace the original power supply doesn't work either. Somewhere in there I've been jamming in as much writing as possible, which hasn't been much.

Ain't I pathetic? Ain't the life of a freelancer writer glamorous?

So I was planning to finally do all the reviews this week, but I still haven't had the time. (Reviewing comics and graphic novels is twice as time consuming as writing the rest of the column, and time's at a real premium these days.) My plan is to read and review ten or twelve comics/books a day for the next week and that ought to bring us about up to date, though it's also going to mean a hell of a lot of reviews next week. Much of the column, probably. But somewhere in there I'll also get to politics, since I'm not doing any politics this week.

Except to have a good laugh at Hilary Clinton. Perhaps seeing where his pro-war stance has left Joe Lieberman against an anti-war opponent in the Connecticut Democratic primary (Joltin' Joe, who ran all his previous campaigns on the platform that he was more right wing than his right wing opponents, and now threatens to run as an independent should primary voters reject him) Hilary has belatedly decided to champion the anti-war cause starting with a Senate questioning session that left Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld flatfooted and beaten down, understandably unable to adequately defend either the Iraq war or the administration's many decisions and policies regarding it as our generals suggest that maybe we ought to prepare for all out civil war in Iraq (they also suggested there's a possibility that the days will grow shorter as Autumn progresses). Rumsfeld's main argument seemed to come down to a resurrection of the domino theory, which originally maintained that if the Communists weren't driven out of Southeast Asia, all of Asia would fall to them and we'd soon be fighting them in San Diego and has apparently been converted to the premise that if Islamic fundamentalists are not stopped cold in Iraq, we're staring down the barrel of mosques replacing Baptist churches in Omaha within our lifetimes. Certainly you'd think we'd have learned from all the Russian tanks in Honolulu in 1982 that you have to take domino theories seriously.

But Hilary was determined to show some people have to learn the hard way. Doubtless the moment was both special and frustrating for many Democrats, particularly those senators who have been struggling mightily for three years to get their own party to challenge the administration on the war and to get permission from party bosses and Senate leaders to ask some hard questions. That the job fell to Hilary Clinton, whose stance until now has been close to wholehearted support for the war and the administration's handling of it, is partly galling and partly indicative of just how far the public's attitude on Iraq has swung. (I read a right wing pundit this morning who bemoaned the American public's "instant results" mentality and wondered how well Roosevelt would have fared in the polls if WWII had been fought under such circumstances, ignoring that WWII pretty much turned around for us in two years and this occupation has been going on three with nothing more happening than sinking deeper and deeper into the morass.) But the real significance is that Hilary's little q-and-a session was tantamount to her official anointing by the party bosses as the Democratic 2008 Presidential Candidate. In other words, it was all just another photo op, with Hilary wearing her newfound (forged?) antiwar credentials the same way the Hand Puppet once famously wore his flight jacket. If the Democratic party's serious about becoming an antiwar party, they ought to throw their weight behind a candidate who has been antiwar all along.

There was no Comics Cover Challenge last week due to technical difficulties, so there's no winner this week. For those who came in late: 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 normally include, somewhere in the column, a hint, but this week's hint is a little odd. (If you need more hints, go to The Grand Comic Book Database.

Errr... did WizardWorld Chicago actually happen? It was all that was going on in comics this last week, and I haven't heard a word about it from anyone. Must've been impressive...

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, the Paper Movies Store has expanded considerably, with books and art for sale, as well as my .pdf books. Still contemplating on-demand printed editions, but I still haven't had enough of a breather to work out my options.

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.

In the former, bumbling wannabe head chefs vie through a series of contests and dinner services to win their own restaurant. (This year's is located right here in Las Vegas.) The men in particular this season were stumblebums - a sweaty ex-accountant, a guy who pulled himself from the competition due to anxiety attacks, a lumpy ex-con who started cooking in the prison kitchen and swaggered angrily through the show like he was trying to bluff the Crips from C-Block, and an even lumpier bartender with an eternally dangling lower lip, though the latter wasn't a bad chef. Not that the women were much better. The show's fun to watch, especially Ramsey's petulant tirades at contestant ineptness, but the problem with the show is that it mainly convinces you to stay the hell away from any restaurant any of these people (save Ramsey) might have anything to do with. KITCHEN NIGHTMARES is a BBC confection that has Ramsey roaming Britain for a week at a time, helping out this failing restaurant or that with his considerable expertise, and it's immensely entertaining. Ramsey's advice is always the same - limit the menu; lower prices; cook fresh and simple; control your staff; publicize - but the show is a parade of timid or egotistical owners, lazy and egotistical chefs, underutilized support staff and, generally, people who don't have a clue to what they're supposed to be doing. Ramsey's specialty is restaurants, but the show's a good primer for businesses of any kind, and is usually more interesting when he can't save restaurants than when he can. Both shows not only subtly encourage the viewer to start cooking themselves but also to avoid eating out at all costs.

Meanwhile, every Saturday on BBC America (4P), they've been running the best popcorn films of the summer, Sean Bean's run as British Napoleonic war hero Richard Sharpe, raised from the ranks to successively higher position in Wellington's army in a film series comprised of SHARPE'S RIFLES, SHARPE'S MISSION, and fourteen others. It's the sort of series where, although there may be saddening losses (Sharpe himself loses at least one wife and slews of junior officers), virtue always triumphs at the end of each film, which makes it all satisfyingly retro heroic, but Sharpe's real story is in the no very subtle class warfare subtext: Bean's Sharpe may be something of an iconoclastic rogue, but the British nobility is, almost to a man, bigoted, supercilious, vain, brutal, greedy, self-serving, duplicitous, manipulative, treacherous and, more often than not, stupid, and the strong suggestion is that it is only through the intrepid intelligence of the common man (not to mention the Irish) that England does not speak French today. But it's rousing stuff and the underrated Bean (Boromir, to you LORD OF THE RINGS fans) is perfect in it, as is his Irish sergeant, semi-comically played by Daragh O'Malley.

But summer is "reality" TV now, interspersed by weirdness like MTV2's CELEBRITY DEATHMATCH, the mostly vulgar but occasionally very clever claymation show where the rich and famous square off (imagine Kelly & Jack Osborne vs. the Olsen Twins) to bash each other's brains out. There are suddenly tons of AMERICAN IDOL-style talent shows on, and the concept is obviously wearing out its welcome: ABC's THE ONE didn't make it three weeks before the network gave it the hook. SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE (ABC, Wednesdays) might more aptly be called WHO THE HELL CARES ABOUT DANCE, and the few performances I've seen on it looked laughably idiotic. (Then again, I always watch them without sound.) There something where David Hasselhoff tells people they have no discernable talent (don't tell me TV doesn't grasp irony), another where people fight it out to be fashion designers, one where singers try to get a gig fronting a metal band by singing Beatles oldies and lightweight New Wave hits; it's a cornucopia of blunders. BIG BROTHER plays almost nightly on CBS, with 14 people and dropping stuck in a house to lie to each other and complain that people are lying to them. This season brings back lots of people who have lost on earlier seasons, to prove that experience means nothing. Except for evil Dr. Will, the only winner among them, who has so far successfully deflected the obvious logic of getting out the guy who has shown he knows how to play the game first. As usual, the show is such a car wreck that it's fascinating, but whiny drama queen Marcellas has got to go. Sadly, the most interesting game/reality show of the summer (next to HELL'S KITCHEN) is NBC's TREASURE HUNTERS (Mondays 9P), which started out by insisting how absolutely unlike CBS's AMAZING RACE it is. It's sort of "what if we crossed AMAZING RACE with NATIONAL TREASURE, only we'll pretend it's got something in common with THE DA VINCI CODE and we'll prop up a corpse for an M.C.?" As AMAZING RACE itself discovered last year, running around Boston and South Dakota doesn't have the oomph that running around Germany and Bangkok does, and while it has had its moments (like roaming around the French headquarters of the Rosicrucians, complete with a mostly bogus history of Rosicrucian influence on the Revolutionary War) TREASURE HUNTERS is a pretty tepid affair, amusing but not diverting.

Curiously, the show the most people told me to watch at all costs - BBC America's LIFE ON MARS (Mondays) - is also the dullest. A modern day British cop is hit by a car, and "wakes up" to find himself as a cop in 1973 (or 1956 by American standards, apparently) where men were men and ambulance drivers didn't know CPR. Or maybe he's in a coma and his adventures are all in his head. (I'm told the first season doesn't clear it up, nor did I expect it to, since it's one of those half-assed ideas where resolving the situation effectively ends the show.) The biggest problem with the show is that, once the setup is set up, they don't do anything with it aside from have the hero occasionally realize he no longer has a cell phone and things like that, and it's largely an excuse for the creative staff to mimic those tough-as-nails Brit cop shows of the '70s without any feel at all for what made them even mildly interesting. It doesn't help that their version of "the '70s" seems drawn mainly from commercials of the time.

I used to be a big fan of pro wrestling, and I still keep up with it courtesy of websites like The Wrestling Observer, but these are the dog days of wrestling, not helped at all by the ongoing rise of Ultimate Fighting Championship and similar mixed martial arts promotions. (UFC's ULTIMATE FIGHTER, their version of AMERICAN IDOL, returns to SpikeTV in a couple weeks, with this season including among the contestants experienced fighters who passed through UFC in the past and are now looking for another shot. My bet is Tank Abbott won't be among them.) Vince McMahon's WWE is still the 800-pound gorilla of the wrestling world, but it has been dragging along on zero charisma for so long about the only thing it still has going for it is name value, and a handful of excellent but mostly management-smothered performers. UFC has, amusingly, given a shot in the arm to upstart rival TNA, whose TV show also airs on Spike (Thursdays, 11PM), but TNA, despite their own slate of excellent performers, remains too mired in '80s style booking, though the real guys in pro wrestling to watch right now - Samoa Joe, Christopher Daniels, AJ Styles - are all there, and despite decent matches, the show tends to plod. But it's obviously enough of a threat that McMahon resurrected '90s upstart ECW, which he bought outright after its collapse after years of surreptitiously financing it to be a thorn in the side of then-competitor WCW, which no longer exists. McMahon, who also bought WCW, tried doing invasion angles with both but blew both because he couldn't resist "proving" to everyone that WWE was the "real" thing and all other promotions were amateur hour. That philosophy continues with the new ECW (Sci Fi, Tuesdays 10P). The show, which mainly features old ECW wrestlers getting crapped on by ex-WWE stiffs no one ever gave a rat's ass about, is less a revival of ECW and more a more vulgar and bloody revival of WWE's old SUPERSTARS OF WRESTLING syndicated show, at least in the pacing and style. It's sad. Really sad. Unwatchably sad. Oh well.

At least, when push comes to shove, there's always DEADWOOD (HBO, Sundays 9P) and ENTOURAGE (HBO, Sundays 10P). At least for three more weeks. DEADWOOD in particular has been great this year, despite apparently being out to show THE SOPRANOS the right way to do a show where virtually nothing actually happens: it's all character and dialogue. A couple weeks back they had a fist fight to end all fist fights - it mainly served not to propel the other action of the show but to maintain a fragile balance of power - but this week's episode was particularly fine, with dozens of nuanced moments - hero/villain Al Swearingen punches out one of his flunkies for understanding the meaning of a Chinese informant better than Al does; the town's unctuous mayor (William Sanderson) is appalled to learn his own underling has unsuspected talents, sheriff Seth Bullock abruptly leads another tough guy down main street by his ear - and wonderful turns of phrase. More than any other show on TV and possibly more than any fiction through any outlet, DEADWOOD loves the sound of the English language. The season's been doing a slow build to all-out war between the town and gold magnate George Hearst. I somehow doubt it'll come to all-out war in the end, but half the fun will be seeing how that particular bullet is dodged, especially with all the random figures who've come into play. ENTOURAGE, the comedic Hollywood adventures of film star Vinnie Chase and his coterie, is a suitable follow-up to DEADWOOD, if nowhere near as brilliant, but, oddly, the two shows share a theme this year: integrity as self-destruction. DEADWOOD's the steak, perfectly done, but ENTOURAGE makes a fine, light dessert.

If there were movies worth seeing, I'd see movies...

"I read with interest your comments on HR5439 and I have to admit to mixed feelings: while I understand your fears regarding corporations appropriating work with only a rote attempt to find the original owner (something I'm quite sure they'd use to their advantage), there are also an enormous number of works that are essentially lost to the public sphere because their ownership is disputed, unknown, or no longer relevant, and few corporations find it economically feasible to resolve their provenance if there's no commercial upside. Books, movies, videogames, music, and a whole plethora of other creative works exist in a sort of limbo where they can't be bought, sold, or even be given away.

(I've got no illusions about the majority of P2P traffic, but in some ways, I believe that due to the legal agnosticism of the P2P nets they're providing a valuable service by preserving elements of our collective memory in ways that no commercial entity would.)

Of course, I feel like I don't really have a horse in this race because anytime the corporations and government collaborate on such a bill -- no matter how noble it may sound in summation -- it's rarely for our benefit. But at the same time, if it did free some of these works from limbo as a side-effect then the overall benefits might outweigh the potential for abuse. I believe Lawrence Lessig made a similar argument before the Supreme Court recently, though it rather went down in flames."

Unfortunately, the problem with assessing potential for abuse is that it's a lot more common to actualize abuse than benefit. While you or I might look at such a law and think, "Oh, good, that rare, beautiful Joe Kubert story that has been languishing unseen in some trashy anthology comic since the late 1940s with the publisher and editor long since vanished can finally see the light of day and gain its deserved share of respect and admiration," there are a thousand highly paid and basically unethical sharks out there perfectly willing to look at anything not corporately protected and make a profit off it. So while the benefits are palpable, the potential for abuse cannot be underestimated...

"Allowing anyone to use intellectual property where the owner can't be found is a bad idea, but the problem of copyrights far outlasting the existence or caring of their owners is very real. Thousands of old records, movies and books (not to mention comics) are completely unavailable to modern readers because the owners no longer exist, nobody knows who the owners are anymore, or because the owners don't care to reissue the works they own.

The solution, as I see it, isn't to allow anybody to use works whose owners can't be found, but rather to bring back the old concept of copyright renewal with a twist: to renew a copyrighted work, instead of paying a fee to the copyright office, you just arrange for it to be republished. Every time a work is reissued in a new printing, its copyright gets extended 10 or 20 years. If you don't republish it before the deadline, it becomes public domain. One exception: copyrights don't need to be renewed for the lifetime of the author, so this would only apply to works made for hire and works whose original author has died: the goal isn't to burden creators, but to require non-creative owners of copyright to use the copyright or lose it."

It's an interesting proposal, though it does put a certain amount of hardship on owners of properties, especially those that have gone fallow through no fault of the owners. It requires, worst case scenario, vanity press, which essentially brings the argument down to money: if you have the wherewithal to ensure publication (meaning money, in the absence of third party publisher interest, and you sort of have to assume than if that interest existed the question wouldn't even come up) the law protects you, and if you don't you're pretty much screwed. Unless "publication" includes something relatively cheap, like allowing access to the material on a website. But I'm not sure Congress (nor their corporate sponsors) would wholeheartedly endorse such a scheme. We might have to vote in a crop who would first.

"As always, I read your CBR column this week with interest. I felt compelled to write to you in respect to your segment on the proposed "orphan rights" amendment to the US Copyright laws.

In respect to your comment, "I love it when lawyers use this term, since it means absolutely nothing - 'reasonable' compensation", I respectfully disagree. When we, as lawyers, use the term "reasonable", what we in fact mean is, "what the reasonable person, in the same situation would do". The Court has to answer the question of what would be the actions, under the circumstances at hand, of the same or similar comic-book creator, lawyer, giant-faceless-corporate-monolith, acting within both the boundaries of the law and the ethical standards of the community. For the Rule of Law, the term "reasonable" has more meaning and importance than probably any word in our language, in my opinion.

To touch briefly on your analogy which I'll refer to as Wazmo Nariz v. Verizon, I perceive the analogy as flawed. The question of how much profit the corporation realized as a result of the use of Mr. Nariz' song as their jingle would be irrelevant. When the Rolling Stones licensed "Start Me Up" to Microsoft for the rollout of Windows XP, they did not become eligible for a share in the profits from the product. What the Court would have to answer is the question, "what would the reasonable company have paid to the copyright owner for the use of the song, based upon prevailing standards?" To the best of my knowledge, those standards would be set by ASCAP (or whomever) for the licensing rates for an unknown song by an unknown artist, plus residuals based on airplay. To ignore the standards and practices set up in the advertising industry simply to screw Wazmo out of this amount of money would open Verizon up to potential litigation costing significantly more money than the original fees - amendment or not.

As artists, people have inherent rights under the law, and perhaps this proposal will limit some of them, perhaps not, but rather than using your widely-read and well-respected column to "hit the panic button" as it were; I'm making the suggestion that you assist in educating creators as to what they can do to help protect and guarantee their rights. If Wazmo, in your analogy, didn't register his song with ASCAP, where does the blame lie if Verizon cannot find him? I suggest to you that it would not entirely be the malicious actions of the giant-faceless-corporate-monolith and by failing to do everything "reasonable" within his power as copyright holder, Wazmo would have contributed to his own loses."

Of course, music was arguably the wrong example to use since most published or performed music is registered with an organization entrusted with collecting fees for usage, and in most artistic fields such a thing doesn't exist. But I've dealt with the "reasonable" thing in contracts more than a few times, and while your own explanation is perfectly... um... reasonable, in most instances "reasonable" is not an established standard but totally up to interpretation that can only really be challenged or enforced via litigation. If, for instance, I create a character set in the DC Universe and my contract reads that only I can write that character, aside from "reasonable" usage elsewhere, DC's view of "reasonable" and mine will possibly be very much at odds, especially if the character is popular enough to merit, in DC's eyes, more than a single title, guest shots far and wide, and inclusion in the Justice League. In a cribbed art case, a judge might easily rule that "reasonable" compensation for unauthorized use of a piece of art in an ad campaign (which does happen) would not be the "standard" cost of usage but the amount the artist would have made on usage of the material elsewhere. "Reasonable" is a sometimes legally convenient term, but it's so open to interpretation that it's basically meaningless, unless the parties involved all agree on a meaning in advance. In which case they can skip the word and include the meaning. I'd just as soon not leave interpretation of things in the hands of a judge or jury, because you never know what card you're going to draw.

Comics next week, I promise.

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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