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Issue #258

INCIVILITY: the return of the Dreaded Deadline Doom

MY WEEK IN MEDIA: it's Hollywood's world, we just review in it

GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEWS: or something like them

BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE: linguistic shell games, and other fronts in the war on terror

NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARDS: no more prose, Comics Cover Challenge, websites of comics interest, more

Amusingly, Marvel's "defense" of the delay was the chime in with the usual comparisons to Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons' WATCHMEN. Not surprisingly, they connected CIVIL WAR to what's generally considered a superhero comics landmark, subtly suggesting CIVIL WAR will turn out to be a landmark of equal standing. Which, for all I know, could end up being true, but it also asks readers to forget or misremember a couple of facts:

1) only one issue of WATCHMEN, the final issue, was late. A better comparison would be to any number of crossover series published by Marvel and DC comics in the '90s that ran into deadline overtime and disrupted scores of connected series doing it. But most of those series saw sales slump as delays continued and in many cases exacerbated, and few - I can't think of any - are considered pivotal moments in comics history today.

2) WATCHMEN was a totally individuated series, disconnected to any other comics appearing at the time, so any lateness on WATCHMEN's part affected very little aside from DC's bottom line.

So I can understand the anger of Hibbs and many other retailers at the lateness of the series. CIVIL WAR's slackness is preventing the release of other, connected Marvel comics, and many comics shops still largely depend on Marvel comics for their cash flows, if not their livelihoods. I don't recall if it was Hibbs who put forth the proposition that Marvel should have disconnected books ready to fit into the shipping slots when such delays occur, so retailers can maintain a continuous flow of Marvels to their customers, or that the absence of a significant block of Marvels from their shelves presents retailers with an opportunity to interest their customers in non-Marvel titles. But I suspect Warren Ellis was right when he responded (and I can't find that discussion now either, but this I know came from Warren) that Marvel buyers being what they are, odds are pretty good they'll simply hold onto their money, ride out the delay and buy the books as they're released. Retailer balance sheets will have a much tougher time of this than their customers will.

Not that Marvel shouldn't be at least a little concerned, as sales of most delayed series do suffer as schedules go awry, and generally the longer it takes for a new issue of any comic to come out, the fewer the number of readers willing to sustain interest. This isn't really the time for any company or book to give its fans enough of a breather to wonder whether a book's worth their money, and Marvel's not yet far enough from the crazed crossover excesses of the '90s that they can afford to take anything for granted.

No doubt a lot of people will be laying blame for the delay at the feet of artist Steve McNiven, but even if that's technically true, I have no doubt that everyone connected to the project didn't know that the odds on McNiven, who has been doing terrific work on the series, meeting a monthly schedule were slight. It wouldn't have been that difficult to have "alternative" issues in place to given McNiven the time he'd need. (Hibbs did mention Marvel has a responsibility to "replace George Perez with Ron Lim" if the artist can't keep the schedule, but, in a market where collections have ever greater value not only to the publisher but to the readers, art disruptions, though pragmatically viable in the short run, can cause long term marketability damage; would WATCHMEN still be considered a classic today if, oh, John McCrea had been brought in to do the last issue because Gibbons was running late, or if the final issues of DARK KNIGHT RETURNS had been drawn by Gene Colan because Frank Miller was having deadline trouble? There was a time when artistic coherence didn't need to be a consideration - but those times have changed.) Regardless of where the slowdown is, the blame falls at Marvel's doorstep. Not that freelancers don't lie about how quickly they can produce material - though I strongly doubt McNiven did in this case - but it's the job of the editor and publisher to know who they're working with and figure out scheduling strategies.

Way too often these days, editors and even publishers don't seem to have much more in the line of publishing strategy than wishful thinking - getting what they perceive as a popular talent on a book (that's part of the sales hook, something marketing departments want to see) and then just sort of praying often unrealistic schedules - especially on books companies are wrapping their financial hopes around - will be met. It's not really hard science; if you know an artist (and I mainly pick on artists because writers, even some of the most popular, are expected by the major companies to produce entire scripts overnight in some cases; there were times, doing work for Marvel in the '90s, when I'd get 22 page art jobs faxed to me at 4PM Pacific time on a Wednesday with instructions to get the completed dialogue in by 5PM or the book would miss shipping that Friday, that's how off-kilter schedules were then) can produce a completed book every six weeks, you don't just cross your fingers that a complete book will come in every four weeks, because it will only take two issues for the title to fall a month behind schedule. It doesn't take that much of a leap of faith or logic to build in safety nets, whether "special issues" that can be excised from collections to maintain a unified look to a story, extra time built into the schedule to accommodate artist speed, or whatever. Freelancers who try to speed up their output to accommodate unrealistic schedules run the risk of looking slapdash, which can negatively affect commercial viability.

The problem is that, no matter what kind of publicity spin on it, publishing delays are no good for anyone. Readers don't like it, it impacts retailer cash flow, publishers and freelancers alike get bad raps from it, with the effects only worse the bigger the project is. Publishers and talent can write it off as an "unavoidable" cost of doing business all they want, but what it really means to the reader is that they're being taken for granted, and it wasn't that long ago that publishers, editors and talent taking readers for granted came close to killing off the American comics industry entirely. Once in awhile readers will understand, but as common practice it's a severe breach of faith with the readership.

Actually got to the movies for a change, to watch SNAKES ON A PLANE. Too bad drive-ins are a scarcity these days, because thirty years ago that's where this film would have played. It's a throwback to exploitation films, not bad but ludicrously straightforward and socially antiseptic, with dollops of gratuitous sex and winky humor thrown into the mix. A surfer witnesses a murder in Hawaii, and the mob boss responsible has to stop the witness from returning to Los Angeles to testify against him. (Why the surfer is testifying in Los Angeles about a crime committed in Hawaii - despite the victim's locale of origin, that strikes me as a jurisdictional issue - is beyond me, but never mind.) Problem: the witness is guarded by intrepid FBI agent Samuel L. Jackson. Solution: fill the plane with poisonous, hungry, insane snakes of varying sizes. And let the parade of atrocities begin. It's lovingly low budget in spirit, with clever bits punctuating all the gross-out moments here and there: a thrill ride popcorn movie that takes itself just seriously enough.

Which is good, because when you take yourself too seriously you end up with earnest messes like Joe Roth's FREEDOMLAND, based on the Richard Price novel and now out on DVD, also starring Samuel L., this time as a police detective trying to solve a supposed carjacking while keeping the lid on racial pressures in the black slum suburb of a lilywhite New Jersey town where the (white) cops obviously never heard of the Emancipation Proclamation. It's loosely based on that incident a few years back where a woman drowned her kids in a car then blamed it on a black carjacker, basically covering herself in a blanket of racial panic. Not that there's not room for exploration of that theme, but it's all over the place, and the mechanisms the film use to break down the mother's resistance just don't add up to much. Jackson, William Forsythe and others do good jobs and the directing's not bad, but the story struggles desperately to say something about racial and parental responsibility, and ends up saying not much of anything at all.

I did, unexpectedly, like 16 BLOCKS, also on DVD, though it's also a forced thriller. A wreck of an old cop (Bruce Willis), weighed down by some unspecified fear, is forced to escort a prisoner (Moz Def) through sixteen blocks of southern Manhattan to testify in a trial. Unknown to Willis, it's crooked cops his prisoner is testifying against, and, behind the protection of their badges, launch an all out manhunt to keep Def from reaching the witness stand. It's the sort of film about redemption (on a couple levels) that Hollywood loves, though, as action films are wont to, it goes way overboard in a couple sequences that make things just a little too convenient for the heroes. But the chemistry between Willis and Def makes the film, and Def is particularly good at humanizing his character - there's a hilarious bit about Yu-Gi-Oh that comes right from out of nowhere in the middle of the film - even with the most irritating voice (the character's, not Def's) in modern film. A decent payoff that's unexpected but makes sense within context doesn't hurt either.

A couple weeks back, someone sent me much of the latest season of DR. WHO - and I can't say it's a great season. Unlike the Christopher Eccleston season, the first David Tennant season often runs too much toward the kiddyisms of earlier versions of DR. WHO. Not that it doesn't have its moments - a return of the greatest of Dr. Who's companions, Sarah Jane Smith, and his trusty robot dog K-9, leads to a discussion of companions' mortality and their ultimate place in his world - but too much feels like we've seen it before. Billie Piper's Rose, who was pivotal in most Eccleston episodes, is too often relegated to damsel in distress or observer in this season, though toward the end they bring her back up to speed. Tennant's Doctor is less natural, and seems less dangerous, than Eccleston's as well; he's clearly trying to recapture Tom Baker but too often comes too close to Colin Baker. A good two-part episode of the Doctor and Rose combating the Devil on a world hovering above a black hole left me with a déjà vu impression of a Jon Pertwee episode. But the season has a few great moments too. An episode circling Madame de Pompadour goes further than any other in series' history toward fleshing out the Doctor's emotional side, and a funny/sad episode about amateur Dr. Who researchers that expands the mythology and picks up on previously dropped threads about the Doctor's social impact could never have been done in earlier seasons. But the capper is a must-not-miss final episode featuring, at last, Daleks vs. Cybermen, with the best, most hilariously bitchy Dalek dialogue ever, not to mention some genuinely bittersweet moments that suggest, maybe, they're not really thinking of this as a kid's show after all.

Finally, NBC's "patriotic" AMAZING RACE knockoff TREASURE HUNTERS, wrapped up this Monday with the most anticlimactic episode possibly in reality TV-game show history, dragging viewers through one long hour (and a mini-edition of TREASURE HUNTERS played by winners of the online version of the game, and endless recaps and interviews) not to find out who won - that they gave away fifteen minutes in - but how much they won. Hosted, of course, by the nondescript bobblehead manikin phoning the players with clues throughout the game. It did lead to one funny moment - the guy has so little personality that the winning team didn't even acknowledge his repeated pleas for them to come join him stage right as they mingled with the losing teams at the top of the "live show" - but overall the series died as it lived: without excitement.

From Fantagraphics:

BUT I LIKE IT by Joe Sacco ($24.95)

Part autobiography, part commentary, this hardcover collects Sacco's strips about his rock-n-roll years, particularly while accompanying a low grade latter day punk band on a semi-disastrous European tour. Never have Sacco's underground comics influences - am I wrong in seeing Robert Crumb everywhere? - been more apparent, but that's fine, and so's the book, as Sacco dodges the more obvious jokes and focuses on the total experience. A CD EP by the band is also included, though they're not actually good enough for that to be a definitive plus.

MOME Fall 2006, eds. Eric Reynolds & Gary Groth ($14.95)

Another edition of possibly the best alt-comics anthology available today. Generally, MOME focuses on actual stories, but this issue's a bit more obscure than most, with too much focus on Tim Hensley's Archie-fied and not particularly funny or edifying "Wally Gropius" vignettes. There are good pieces by Sophie Crumb, Jeffrey Brown & Paul Hornschemeier, but the real standout this volume is Gabrielle Bell's "California Journal," which is practically a blueprint for doing "slice of life" comics right. Not their best issue, but good.

I LOVE LED ZEPPELIN by Ellen Forney ($19.95)

The cover makes this easy to mistake for a Hernandez Bros. book, and it wouldn't be the worst mistake you ever made. Forney's comics - nearly fifty are collected here - are clever, savage and funny, and where else will you learn how to sew a finger back on? Most strips are compacted into a single page, but her longer material shows real flair for the medium as well. Love the homage to Courtney Love, too. Good stuff all through.

YOU CALL THIS ART?!! A GREG IRONS RETROSPECTIVE by Patrick Rosenkranz ($29.95)

I realize it probably behooves me to write pithier things than "Good stuff all through," so here's something: Greg Irons was one of the great unsung underground comics artists, one of the first to start bridging to "mainstream" comics via a stronger focus on both artistic technique and genre material, especially horror, albeit horror steeped in the political concerns of his time; in fact, Irons work with Tom Veitch pretty much reintroduced the whole concept of the horror comic, especially since they brought a wilder counter-culture ethic to it that pretty much blew away the by-then sedate approach of CREEPY and EERIE. Which some may not see as a positive, but Irons drew one of the best undergrounds ever, LEGION OF CHARLIES, which postulated the rise of a generation fathered by Charles Manson before his incarceration. Irons' work is brutal, smutty and knowing, and Rosenkranz does a great job of sampling it (among the pieces you'll find the complete LEGION OF CHARLIES). What's truly surprising is how fresh and undated much of this material is today, though whether that's a sign of Irons' timeless qualities or history repeating itself I'm not sure. Highly recommended; get it.

ALPHABETICAL BAND OF CARNALITY by David Sandlin ($14.95)

Like a perverse children's book, Sandlin's true to his title and follows the alphabet through a parade of vulgar images. (Example: Was it this Greed for Gold or a false God's Grand design that caused our trouble and strife and made a George Jones song the ballad of our life? Was it only a fable, coming over the cable?" The "letters" do tie together into one great narrative, but while it's interesting as a technical exercise, it doesn't do much for me.

CHEWING GUM IN CHURCH by Steven Weissman ($14.95)

Um. Okay. Imagine PEANUTS starring Frankenstein in the Charlie Brown role and a vampire as Linus, and that's sort of what this is. Besides a collection of four-panel strips, I mean. Unfortunately, it's the later PEANUTS when cute was considered enough and funny unnecessary. I didn't dislike CHEWING GUM IN CHURCH... but I didn't laugh enough.

THE LOUCHE AND INSALUBRIOUS ESCAPADES OF ART D'ECCO by Andrew & Roger Langridge ($16.95)

Roger Langridge's work is anarchic, wry and uncommonly theatrical for comics, with art sort of like Wally Wood's had he obsessed on George Herriman, and the Langridges (I have no idea at this point where Roger starts and Andrew leaves off) here collect a number of tales of their humorous, tuxedo clad "adventurer" Art D'Ecco as they lampoon subjects from comics speculating to, in the most elaborate sequence, the commercialism of modern religion. One thing about Langridge: when you finish one of his books, you feel like you read something. You just might not be certain what. Go for it.

From AiT/PlanetLar Books:

SHATTER by Peter Gillis & Mike Saenz ($14.95)

Ah, the stories I could tell about SHATTER. (It was originally published by First Comics, which brought me in, after Gillis had left the series, to wrap up the first storyline, though those issues do not appear here.) SHATTER's main claim to fame, aside from being one of the earliest comics to tap into the whole cyberpunk future thing, was being the first comic produced on computer, via a Macintosh and a dot matrix printer, which makes this volume of some historical importance. For the most part, artistically, it's pretty standard comics stuff, though the work doesn't age as badly as you might expect and in some ways it's strangely attractive. The story remains what it always was: a fairly rambling, disjoint compendium of private eye clichés translated into science fiction, but, again, that becomes oddly appealing. Even the book simply closing rather than wrapping anything up somehow adds to it. It's a bizarre case where the whole manages to surmount the individual elements, though you may need a sense of the absurd to catch that.

CONTINUITY by Jason McNamara & Tony Talbert ($12.95)

In another cyperpunk world where there's a pill for everything and no one ever heard of New York City, an anti-sleep junkie relives her youth in a very pedestrian, downbeat modern-day where she dreams herself into different settings - including the world she's now trapped in. It's an interesting attempt, ultimately collapsing under the weight of artwork that's sloppy far too often and a story that ultimately only eats its own tail in a desperate, doomed attempt to mean something.

From Del Rey Manga:

NEGIMA! Vol 11 by Ken Akamatsu ($10.95)

I still don't care much for this endless harum manga about a pre-pubescent sorcerer teaching a class of mostly superpowered ripening girls at a Japanese junior high school (of course, they all have mad crushes on him, with everyone involved, except the publishers who've decided to wrap the book in plastic, conveniently overlooking that all the sexual innuendo and escapades push precariously close to child molestation) but at least the recent almost interminable "Groundhog Day" storyline with magician Negi reliving the same day over and over in order to do everything he promised has ended, even if it just gives way to a martial arts tournament that threatens to be equally interminable. I know there are people who adore this not particularly well-drawn distillation of every cliché in the manga playbook, but I'll be damned if I know why.

ES: ETERNAL SABBATH Vol 2 by Fuyumi Soryo ($10.95)

This series, about test tube babies who turn out to be mindbending supermen, has started to grow on me, as the last surviving scientist from the lab that birthed them sets out to destroy the "evil twin" as the "good twin" (who has taken the identity of a family's dead grandson by psychically manipulating their perceptions and memories) is cajoled into coming to the scientist's aid by a woman who catches his fancy. I'm not blown away by it yet, but the clean art is getting better, and the story's measured pace while it explores the potential of the test tube supermen and the ways they're incorporating themselves into society is exactly right. Worth a look.

GACHA GACHA Vol 5 ($10.95)

The conclusion of the series, but the storyline will continue. High school student Kouhei enters a virtual reality world to save the girl he loves, Kurara, from the artificial intelligence threatening to devour her psyche and take over her life. This volume improves on the others by focusing more on story and less on fan service (though not much less) and the art's good enough to cover various sins, but the ending, setting up the next series, is just a little too cute.

BASILISK Vol 2 by Futaro Yamada & Masaki Segawa ($13.95)

Interesting that Del Rey is demarking their 18+ titles (though I'm not sure why this falls into that category, since the sexual content isn't much different from many of their other books) with plastic wrap, a higher price and sizes about 25% larger than standard manga paperback format. It's nice to see the art in the bigger size, particularly this art, which has more depth and weight than much manga art. The story, essentially Romeo & Juliet set against two warring ninja clans, is novelistically straightforward (unsurprising given it's an adaptation of a novel) and mainly an exercise in action scenes with just enough characterization to get by, as each ninja displays his special "technique" in pitched combat. (Let's not crassly call them superpowers.) I felt the first volume read like a really good X-MEN sequence and this doesn't change my opinion; it's like the X-Men if they were going for broke and playing for keeps. Not bad.

SUZUKA Vol 1 by Kouji Seo ($13.95)

Another oversized 18+ manga, and I'm starting to get the demarcation line: naked breasts. Other than that, SUZUKA is a pretty standard harem manga; a teenage boy moves to Tokyo to board with his aunt, who runs an all-girl apartment complex with attached bathhouse, which the boy has to clean as part of the living arrangement. Of course, he instantly falls in love with the titular heroine, who doesn't get along with him but is constantly thrown together with him, and he finds himself unwillingly involved in comically embarrassing sexual situations with other tenants. If this sounds like 5000 other manga and anime, it pretty much is. Not that there's anything wrong with the book - it's done well enough, and it's pleasant enough - but, so far, there's not much to make it stand out from the pack either.

SCHOOL RUMBLE Vol 3 by Jin Koboyashi ($10.95)

In the first volume, this series - mainly about a teenage hoodlum secretly in love with a perky airhead of a girl who chases after the cool boy in school - shared the anarchic mania of the ineffable CROMARTIE HIGH SCHOOL, but by this volume the storyline has been structured enough that it's now more like the controlled nuttiness of MAISON IKKUKU. Which is a pretty good pedigree too, and it's still pretty funny. One of the best manga Del Rey publishes.

"America rejects the killing of innocent people for political ends!"

Since when?

Hopefully this constitutes a real policy shift, but it smacks of a new linguistic shell game, and this administration loves those. For instance, the Hand Puppet during the press conference very considerately revealed that he's not going to suggest Americans who disagree with his Iraq policy aren't "good" Americans. No, sirree. But why should he, when his pit bull VP Dick Cheney is out there proclaiming that the victory at the polls over Sen. Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic primary a couple weeks back by challenger Ned Lamont (largely by focusing on Lieberman's Iraq stance - slightly to the right of the Administration's - and clannishness with the White House) constitutes aid and comfort to al Qaeda? (The use of Cheney to put forth divisive and intimidating messages while the Hand Puppet stands to one side publicly washing his hands is by now standard administration practice.) "Killing of innocents" is doubtless not a term that pops up in White House or Pentagon scenarios. They have euphemisms galore to cover those: "collateral damage" (lately, I hear a lot of right wing pundits angrily insisting that it's idiotic to think a war can be fought without "collateral damage," which is true... but you might notice those who seek to justify the necessity of "collateral damage" are rarely those who suffer it, just as those who call for sacrifices are, historically, are almost never the same ones called on to make them) or, if damage control is really required, "enemy combatants" or "human shields" (like dead women and children in Iraq and elsewhere who are now frequently assumed to have purposely put themselves in harm's way to make us look bad).

As the recent Israeli-Hezbollah war indicated, "innocents" can also change status by dint of location. It's a flexible term. "Political" is no less flexible. We've quietly been trained over the past few decades to respond to the term "political" with suspicion; it now carries a sense of manipulation and chicanery. One can easily make the argument, for example, that the Administration's excursion into Iraq was purely political - long before our invasion, there was plenty of evidence indicating the Administration's accusations against Iraq were bogus, that Saddam Hussein was already effectively neutered on the world stage, that war on Iraq would serve no viable function in our supposedly overriding "war on terror" and would divert resources from the pursuit of it - but, from the Administration's POV, it wasn't. It was "military." Looked at as a means of gaining access to the Iraqi oil and/or preventing Saddam from undermining the American dollar by converting to the Euro as the basic unit of exchange (his ouster wrecked his scheme), the purpose of the war was "economic."

And you'll notice the Hand Puppet didn't say, "America rejects the killing of innocent people for political, military or economic ends!"

But, really, when were military and economic ends not also political ends? The upshot of the statement is less a reinforcement of the "compassionate conservatism" we once heard so much about (even if we never saw any signs of it) than just another rephrasing of the old "they put no value on human life!" routine that America's enemies are always accused of. "They" kill "innocent people." "We" - regrettably - sustain "collateral damage." "Their" objectives are "political." "Ours"... well... just aren't.

And that's how we know who our enemies are.

Speaking of enemies, in case you had any doubts, the Office Of Homeland Security's recent round-ups of terror suspect leaves no doubt: any American Muslim who has to audacity to buy a cell phone. In both Ohio and Michigan, Muslim Americans looking to make a buck were rounded up for nothing more than having cell phones in their possession, with much ado about it in the press. "Evidence" was quickly gathered against them - one of the Michigan "terror suspects" had the audacity to take a souvenir photo of a bridge, and, you know, the only possible reason a Arab-American could have for taking a photograph in a region of the country he had never been there before - hell, the only reason he'd even be there - is to facilitate an act of terrorism. Of course, after much preening by authorities, both groups of men were quietly let go because there wasn't one shred of evidence against them. The unanswered question is whether a group of Anglo-American men would be detained and arrested in Michigan or Ohio for buying multiple cell phones and possessing photographs of popular landmarks. If the answer is yes, then the arrests, however unfair they may be to Muslim Americans, can be rationalized as precautionary action in the war on terror, which I'm sure is how the Administration would like them perceived. If the answer is no, they constitute nothing more than fearmongering, and, given MSNBC's recently charting of the apparently cause-and-effect relationship between downturns of Administration political fortunes and announcements of terror plots and arrests, opportunistic fearmongering against a subset of the population already widely suffering suspicion and rising hatred they have few tools to combat.

And speaking of fearmongering, according to many Neo-cons pundits, you're probably not even reading this today (Wednesday Aug 23rd or later) because devastating terror attacks under orders from Tehran took place on Tuesday all over the world. Commemorating the return of the 12th imam, apparently. If you are reading this, no doubt the terror plots were all thwarted by the good guys' vigilance but Iran must still be wiped from the map before the "real" attacks start. Good strategy. Like the second coming of Christ, when the official anticipated date passes, just set it back and keep telling people to believe - then make unwavering faith the official earmark of righteousness.

Something I should probably mention, since it's been coming up a bit lately: I'm not going to be reviewing comics-related prose fiction anytime in the foreseeable future. There suddenly seems to be a lot of it coming out, particularly from small and self- publishers, which I know are often the most desperate to find any publicity venue, and I'm sorry about that, but I've got already got a stack of non-comics-related prose fiction (and non-fiction) that waits to be read, and when it comes to reading prose I have to put my own choices (many of which involve research) first. So please don't waste your money and time sending me prose fiction to review, because it's just not going to happen. (Well, if it's a major author whose work I already know and like, maybe, but unless your name is John Shirley, JG Ballard or George Pelecanos, that kind of cuts down your odds.)

I am still reviewing comics-related non-fiction, though.

Congratulations to Nicolas Judza, for correctly identifying last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme as "spiders." Nicolas would like to direct your attention to The Starburst Crystal, "an ongoing online round-robin fantasy novel influenced by manga/anime." Nicolas didn't specify whether anyone can join in, but apparently the Improfanfic site has more of these things going on, so check it out.

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, a clue to the answer is hidden somewhere in this column - those of you in step enough to recognize the clue, I tastelessly salute you - and, as usual, additional clues can be found at The Grand Comics Database.

A few websites of interest to comics fans:

If it's still up, WATCHMEN fans can read the "Tales Of The Black Freighter" pirate story that ran as a comic-within-the-comic reassembled as a standalone story here - and it only goes to show just what good storytellers Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were. There's a story about the reconstruction here.

A lengthy, interesting interview with DC president Paul Levitz about the current state of the company and the industry can be found here.

Wally Wood's legendary page "22 Panels That Always Work" is online here. Hopefully by now we're up to at least 25 panels that always work, though.

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.

Finally, for those who've been wondering, my copies CSI: DYING IN THE GUTTERS #1, my new mini-series from IDW, came in tooday's mail so it should be available at your local comics shop as you read this. Don't forget to pester them for it if you don't see 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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