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Issue #260

SEVEN YEARS GOOD LUCK: Mark Millar, doomsayer - and what the picture of comics' future really is

BY THE BOOK: librarians talk about books in libraries

BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE: how many Reichs make a wrong?

In case he didn't mention it, Mark's doing standup all week at the Holiday Inn Lounge. Tell them Steven sent you and get a half-price beer.

Nothing in the article should have surprised anyone. Mark has long been a proponent of the theory (I believe Grant Morrison has voiced it more than once as well) that the comics business is cyclical, and we're stuck in a sort of predestined waveform that alternates periods of enormous profit and success with periods of decline and despair. (Why are Scots so drawn to predestination, anyway?) If you look at a chart of the industry's sales rhythms from 1930-today, there's even a certain amount of data backing up that worldview. If, by "the industry," you're speaking strictly of Marvel and DC and equating the health of the business with theirs.

Which, of course, is how Marvel and DC (and likely Diamond) would prefer it.

The cyclical theory is popular with a lot of people in comics mainly because it takes the onus off them: the fault lies not in ourselves, but in our stars. It suggests that whatever we do, our efforts are nothing to the ebb and flow of time. People happy to wallow in the status quo often use it as an excuse to putter along - to "stay the course" - without considering that perhaps their problems lie in the kind of material they're producing. Because, obviously, if the audience will come back on their own there's no need to try to build one, or to try to figure out what an audience might want.

If the theory were true, comics would be a carpetbaggers' paradise. Get in on the cusp of the up cycle, cash out on the cusp of the down cycle. But it conveniently overlooks all kinds of factors, and forces behind the upward/downward swings. The boom of the '40s didn't simply peter out, it slipped first because soldiers were a major comics market and the war ended and second because social forces arrayed to enforce a concept of comics as strictly substandard fare for substandard children. There were comics companies on the upswing during that time, with material targeting a more mature (if not exactly adult) audience - Lev Gleason's crime comics and EC Comics, for example - that, left to their own devices, would likely have boomed as the '50s went on. Though that would have been scant comfort to Hawkman fans, since that boom was definitely past by 1954. The boom of the '60s was undone largely by economic forces, mainly the wholesale abandonment of comics by newsstands, due to ineffective price points. There was a sizable audience for comics in the early '70s, but by the mid-'70s the size of the audience was irrelevant because they couldn't find them. The boom of '80s-mid-'90s ended in a sort of mass suicide by comics publishers, with the bigger one beating their audience and almost themselves out of existence through sheer greed.

Same result, true, but very different reasons, at least on the surface. Wait for it.

The booms, if you examine them, all seem to have different causes as well. The '40s boom resulted from the creation of colorful and even inspirational characters like Superman and Captain America right at the point where fear was rampant and millions of soldiers were marching off to war to provide what became essentially a captive audience. (Leaving kids the visible domestic market for comics, whence many of our problems derive.) The '60s boom came out of the buzz generated by Marvel Comics, mainly Spider-Man, and the birth of comics fandom. The '80s-mid-'90s boom erupted from the rise of the comics shops, again a hungry captive audience that set the economic basis for further dramatic development, making it possible to deliver material geared for that market, right down to a team of writers and artists breaking away from Marvel to form their own company. If we are currently truly going through a boom in comics interest, some of the credit rests with Marvel's attention-getting stunts of the last few years but most of the credit has to go the sudden availability of a widespread amount of manga galvanizing new audiences.

But even in the booms there were micro-crashes like the one that largely wiped out black and white comics in the late '80s. Like little ice ages. Likewise, crashes can feature mini-booms, like the aforementioned rise of EC comics and crime comics in the '50s.

So you can (if you ignore the little ice ages and only focus on the big ones) say that the comics market is "cyclical," but the people who say that don't recognize the real cycle. Sure, right now Hollywood's noticing comics, and, as Mark mentions, many writers and artists are being wooed that way. But comics writers and artists have always migrated to other fields, or co-existed in them. The army took Will Eisner, Hugh Hefner took Harvey Kurtzman. Alex Toth, Russ Heath, Jack Kirby and others took off for the animation business. Most artists and writers with projects in Hollywood may take "sabbaticals" from comics, but it seems unlikely, particularly as comics increasingly (at least for the moment) become important tools in selling projects to Hollywood, that they'll abandon comics altogether. But there are enough people interested in comics, and talented enough, that any void left by the attrition of talent from comics will quickly be filled by other talent, and Mark knows that DC and Marvel have both been on special crusades to recruit that talent from the ranks of novelists and filmmakers, so it's a two-way door. (Furthermore, it's only since the mid-'80s or so that the comings and goings of talent had any notable effect on sales in the first place, so that consideration can't be applied to earlier "cycles.") And the Marvel/DC-centricity of comics is rapidly deteriorating too, with manga the first big blow and the nascent rise of "graphic story" publishing by book publishers threatening to break their hegemony. Of course, the latter two have their own ideas of what comics should be - and that's our best shot as dodging the crash Mark predicts.

Because.

If you really examine the "cycles" of the comics business, all upward and downward movements have significant similarities to their counterparts in other cycles.

Comics go on an upswing when there is a creative/content event significant enough to galvanize widespread interest: the creation of Superman and superheroes in the '30s/early '40s, the rise of "alternative" superheroes like Spider-Man and the rise of underground comics as a medium of unfettered, uncensored expression in the '60s, the evolution of the "creator-generated story" (DAREDEVIL, DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, AMERICAN FLAGG!, WATCHMEN) in the '80s that by the '90s generated the "creator-generated publishing company," the influx of manga and media into the market now. Downswings always occur when the changes that generated the upswings are co-opted/bowdlerized by the status quo, effectively reversing those changes. Or when, to quote Shakespeare, enterprises of great pith and moment turn awry, and lose the name of action. Not to mention readers.

To put it another way: comics sales go on an upswing when their contents become interesting. They go on a downswing when their contents cease to be interesting. Rise of the new: upswing. Reassertion of the old: downswing.

In other words, while cycles of comics sales can be identified, it's delusional to think we don't influence them. Or that any future "cycles" aren't subject to our influence. It's not difficult to identify causes, and it shouldn't be difficult, if the business truly is on an upswing, to keep it going if we put a little thought into it. What's best for the medium and the business may not be what's best for Marvel or DC, and continuing to use them as leading indicators of the health of comics may be like continuing to use the American steel industry as a leading indicator of the state of the American economy. There are a lot of new influences and movements in the comics business now, and odds are the face of the business will change radically over the next few years. At this point there's no reason to expect the future to resemble the past, unless it's forced to resemble it. Nothing is predestined. It is what we make it.

"I work in an academic library and have for several years been working on adding comics to the collection. The so-called "intellectual freedom" of higher education (in a public institution in a Southeastern state... you see the limits) allows us to sidestep some of the uber-boobage issues you cited as concerns for public libraries. Nonetheless, I've been collaborating with the chair of the English department and other faculty members to add comics based on their excellence as literature, so selection is always tricky.

For the most part, we've steered clear of Marvel/DC superhero fare - not because there aren't some excellent titles out there, but mostly because our local public library does a very good job of collecting them already. We go through the TCJ Top 100, more or less, and add on from there when we can. Donations help build the numbers, especially now as funding for books is tight across all disciplines (it's pretty courageous for English, for example, to use a percentage of their limited book money on "funny books", even with the full support of the department's chair).

I won't deny my profession's archival fetish, and those hardback editions you describe appeal to librarians for many reasons. Bang for the buck, for one thing, and the format means they'll hold up better over time than "floppies" (which we don't bother with at all) or trade paperbacks (the binding of which can be quite flimsy). The ongoing series do make life interesting for our catalogers, but they really can stand with the excitement.

Let me loudly second your assertion that comics and GNs have their readers. These books circulate at a significantly higher rate than most of our titles, and in fact go missing quite a lot more often (don't get me started on the absurdity of stealing from libraries, however long and proud that tradition may be). I try to synch purchases to curriculum whenever applicable: MAUS in our Judaica classes, the many Joe Sacco books in journalism, Phoebe Glockner in psychology, but the readership jumps disciplines all the time. I think comics also address the "reading for pleasure" component that many academic libraries have de-emphasized.

The next challenge for us - along with consistent funding for all acquisitions - is figuring out where comics belong as electronic resources. This is not my preferred format, not at all, but what little money there is for collection building is supposed to focus on "serving remote audiences". It's a real balancing act developing materials designed to discourage people from visiting the library. Irony isn't as dead as some claim, as you well know."

Irony not only isn't dead, it isn't even unemployed...

"I'm a former public librarian who has pushed for graphic novels and comics in the libraries for more than 20 years and currently a freelance consultant who selects graphic novels for a book distributor serving school and public libraries (Brodart). I have been reviewing graphic novels in a little professional journal called VOICE OF YOUTH ADVOCATES since 1994, I have also been reviewing graphic novels for Diamond Comics' Bookshelf website for librarians and educators since 2001.

I read your column every week, but this week you really caught my attention. I'm so glad you wrote what you did, addressing it to the comics industry. I hope more people will pay attention. I think you have explained beautifully what I've been saying to comics publishers for more than 20 years.

I may be an oddity; I've been reading comics since I was very young, about 6 years old - more than 40 years. I'm over 50 now. Most librarians who are really getting into comics and graphic novels for their libraries are at least 20 years younger than me - at some of our gatherings, I feel like the den mother.

There are a few signs of hope out there. Quite a few publishers have put me on their comp list for their books, knowing they will be reviewed and/or considered for selection to the lists I produce for Brodart. More comics publishers are exhibiting at library conferences, enough that the American Library Association Annual Conferences (held in late June every year) have had Graphic Novel Pavilions for several years. Diamond and DC Comics were the pioneers from back in the 1990s. In 2005, I was an Eisner Awards judge, and Jackie Estrada told me she thought it was time for a librarian to serve.

The Young Adult Library Services Association, a division of ALA, has created a new annual list, Great Graphic Novels for Teens; the first list will be selected and announced in January 2007. The committee is working on it now; you can see the current nominees at http:www.ala.org/yalsa - click on the booklists and awards link at the left side of the screen and select the list. You'll see it's very eclectic. As you said in your column, we are interested in all genres of comics.

And actually, I know that Maryland has been using comics in their school curricula already; they used ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN Volume 1, a Disney comic, and Jim Ottaviani's Dignifying Science.

Thanks so much; you always give me food for thought, both about the comics industry and about politics. If you don't mind, I'm going to post about your column to some of the library listservs; we love reading about outsiders who appreciate what we do."

Hmmm... I'll have to remember to provide your email address to all my publishers... By the way, thanks very much for the great service you're doing the comics industry, whether they're aware of it or not.

"I'm a regular visitor of my local library. Recently I've noticed a large influx of graphic novels in the 'New Fiction' section. As the weeks go by, more and more graphic novels have been appearing on the shelves and not just in the Young Adult department. This thrills me. As a husband and father of two living on Long Island, I can not afford to shuck out the insane amounts of cash required to keep on top of the graphic novel market. More and more, I've had to rely on sites like CBR to keep me abreast of the latest and greatest in the world of comics. Without my local library I would never have been able to enjoy EX MACHINA, HELLBOY and the plethora of BATMAN graphic novels being pumped out almost daily.

I think adding graphic novels to library's inventory is a great move for other reasons, too. Comics taught me to read at a very early age. Some of my earliest memories showcase me pouring through a Giant Batman Family and struggling with all the new words and concepts within its pages. I learned that heat weakens magnetism from an issue of Legion of Super-Heroes. Comics taught me proper English and how a truly virtuous person should act (note: this was during the Comics Code Authority era when heroes were required to be honest-to-goodness good guys instead of the foul-mouthed, tortured anti-heroes that inundate the market today). I also learned of heady concepts like alternate dimensions and time travel (concepts that physicists have just started to accept as possible). Comics, when done correctly, stimulate the mind and fuel the imagination. But in my day and age, comics were way more affordable and more readily accessible.

Thank goodness they're available at my local library."

I think I've mentioned in earlier columns that most of the Marvel and DC graphic novels I read now, I borrow from the Las Vegas-Clark County Library System, which does a great job of keeping their stacks up to date. (Currently on the reading list from them: Warren Ellis' JLA arc, "New Maps Of Hell." It's up next.)

"In the past decade or so, I've come to the conclusion that many, if not most, comic book fans want people to join them, only on their terms. If the new people won't learn the terms, put in the time to learn the background, want to do things differently, they'll never be welcome.

This applies not only to comic book shops, but also to comic book conventions. While the large shows grow ever larger, the smaller, regional shows are almost non-existent. Obviously, with the current interest in comic book related media, they could flourish, but they'd have to embrace the curious, who only know the X-Men from a movie. Who'd come out to see the actor who played the Juggernaut, but not Murphy Anderson.

I watched a large science fiction/comic book show in the Midwest shrink, despite the offer of a local newsperson who found free television spots for the con. They said that they were afraid they'd get too many "mundanes." So, over time, less people come.

After over 40 years of comic book collecting, even I rarely go to comic book shops anymore. I'm not interested in the posters covering the windows, or the toys dangling from the ceiling. It's not worth dodging people in the small isles, who only care about what's "hot" this week. In what other media are you required to show up on the first day something is available, or pay in advance for a copy?

A break through, into new readers won't come from standard super hero comics. I've tried with intelligent people who simply don't want to have to learn all the rules of the game, before picking up a book to read. We need an American TINTIN or ASTERIX, accessible, but with a history.

Films can now do the big explosions and fights better than comic books. They don't do characterization and humor that make you pause and think. I still believe that there are a large number of possible readers out there, people who actually have attention spans of more than a minute. But, without a push, there's no reason for them to investigate comics, and as per your example, the first couple that they pick up better be something that pulls them in."

It makes perfect sense to me that more people would be interested in coming out to see Vinnie Jones than Murphy Anderson, even though Murphy's a gent. And probably the closest thing there is to an American TINTIN or ASTERIX is Carl Barks' UNCLE SCROOGE and later duck adventures showing Barks' influence. But... "mundanes?!" Heh. Man, some people are idiots. What's next? "Fans are Slans"? Some guy named Tubby putting a sign on the treehouse that reads NO GURLS ALLOWED?

"If our library represented libraries across the US, then the American comics industry is already losing out, especially publishers like Marvel and DC.

First off, we don't buy $50 archival copies. Are you crazy? I can get a very nice rebound tpb from BWI or Sagebrush. I can use the money saved to get more comics. There's not enough value in fancy books that aren't competitively priced with other HCs.

While there are many librarians that are clueless when it comes to comics, there are also a lot of us that read them before becoming librarians. One of the first titles I started buying was the SECRET WARS limited series. I found your column because it was passed onto the Graphic Novels for Libraries listserv with a recommendation to read it. Oh, and the reason many librarians aren't familiar with comics is that this profession is dominated by women and the comics industry wasn't even aware of female customers for years, so they have no background in the medium.

When I took over comics purchases for our system in 2000, the first thing I did was ask Diamond to send us PREVIEWS (and the previous purchaser had already been buying SANDMAN, RANMA½, and even ORGY BOUND from other sources). We used to order everything from Diamond. Now, we get all our materials from traditional suppliers, like Ingram and Brodart, and what we can't get from them we buy from Amazon or direct from the publisher. In the meantime, Diamond's response to the library market wasn't enough and they have lost us. They don't even bother to send us PREVIEWS anymore. Of course, due to their own tactics, Diamond is almost the sole representative for much of the comics industry, which limits their potential market. Meanwhile, Amazon is looking to become even more indispensable to libraries through their Library Processing Program.

Our customers really know how to abuse books. We need books that will last multiple circulations. Most American comics publishers have bad bindings. Dark Horse was one of the worst, but has been improving. Marvel still is the worst. We can't afford to rebind everything, so instead we save money by not buying these poorly produced materials. I only order Marvel material if it is related to a movie or is requested by a customer. Even their hardcovers suck. I have been making exceptions for the Marvel digests, because they are cheap, but they fall apart as well.

American comics have already fallen way behind anyways. Look at any Barnes and Noble or Borders. Manga occupies multiple shelf rows while American stuff, whether super-hero or not, shares a few pitiful shelves. I try for a broad spectrum of comics, but even so, manga dominates our collection. It comprises most of our requests, most of our circs, and most of our money for comics. There was a time (before Tokyopop) when I could do no wrong with manga. Anything I ordered would be devoured by our customers. Now there's more variety, but the popularity hasn't abated. At our library, the best American comic is amateur hour in terms of popularity compared to manga. Oh, and those customers are teens and tweens. If those customers aren't bothering to read American comics, then Marvel et al are losing out on a whole generation of potential customers. Meanwhile, what was that age stat for the average purchaser at direct market shops?

As for potential markets, well, DC and Marvel and the rest have their work cut out for them. Rosen, Capstone, and others are making big efforts in the educational realm. Traditional publishers like Scholastic, Del Rey, and Pantheon are charging into the marketplace. And companies such as NBM and Drawn & Quarterly are publishing books aimed at bookstores and promoting these books to libraries. But the majority of comics companies are still focused on the direct market. Sure, DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, Image and others have a lot of books in bookstores, but this is still not their focus. Nor are their stories or art. They may be able to leverage shelf space in the future through media tie-ins or alliances, but right now it is just slipping away.

I've ranted too long, but I'd like to note one last thing. My favorite company as a librarian is Oni. They have affordable books, with good bindings, good stories and artists, and a variety of story types for multiple age groups. I make an extra effort to acquire their books. They are not as popular as some others, but they are popular enough to justify their purchase. I don't feel this way toward the big companies.

It may be that I have exaggerated the marketplace, but remember that I was using my library as an example. The whole marketplace isn't quite that dour, and other libraries may feel differently, but I know some feel the same as I do. I personally had to wait years for a decent comic-in-book-form market. I've preferred books to pamphlet- style comics ever since I visited "the Wall" in Comic Relief. That market has existed for a few years now. But for myself, and many of our customers, Marvel, DC and super-heroes aren't part of that market."

Good point about most librarians being women, and American comics virtually abandoning the female market (which is no exaggeration; I've heard editors and publishers make decisions based on the rigid rule that "girls don't buy comics) decades ago. Just another example of being coldcocked by your own narrow thinking years down the road...

"I just read your article on the libraries and was wondering if you can direct me to some distributors that specialize in this. I believe our books would be perfect in the libraries."

As mentioned above, the top distributors for "graphic story" material (and most other books) to libraries are Brodart and Ingram. I can't speak for Ingram, but the distributor's rep I did the panel with was from Brodart, whose booth in the display area impressed me with their apparent strong dedication to comics material. I can't guarantee anything, of course, but if I were a publisher I'd start with them.

"I can't remember them verbatim, but I seem to recall you made some assertions about the administrations role in leaking Valerie Plame's identity (always appropriate subject matter for a Comic Book Column). You may have missed it, but the real leaker has been found (it wasn't Rove, it was Armitage). From the Washington Post's Sept 1st edition -

"Nevertheless, it now appears that the person most responsible for the end of Ms. Plame's CIA career is Mr. Wilson. Mr. Wilson chose to go public with an explosive charge, claiming -- falsely, as it turned out -- that he had debunked reports of Iraqi uranium-shopping in Niger and that his report had circulated to senior administration officials. He ought to have expected that both those officials and journalists such as Mr. Novak would ask why a retired ambassador would have been sent on such a mission and that the answer would point to his wife. He diverted responsibility from himself and his false charges by claiming that President Bush's closest aides had engaged in an illegal conspiracy. It's unfortunate that so many people took him seriously." (you would be one of those people)

Your quote "Amusingly, an Administration spokesman asked 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."

So will one of your future columns correct your previous statements?"

Maybe. Not that I wouldn't trust the editorial page of the Washington Post implicitly, but if Wilson's assertions of investigations into the Niger uranium connection and circulation of his report are false claims, this is the first I've heard about it, and it'd be nice to see, oh, an actual news story detailing this rather than an off-handed comment from an editorial column. Editorial pages, even - especially? - from such journalistic lumunaries as the New York Times, undergo considerably less scrutiny than news stories, which is kind of scary considering how little scrutiny many news stories undergo these days. Complicating this is the large number of syndicated columns - you didn't mention whether this was an actual Post editorial or a syndicated column run by the Post, or who the writer is - which are often included to demonstrate a newspaper's dedication to airing viewpoints from across the political spectrum (in most cases, "the political spectrum" covering from slightly to the left of center to far to the right) and which are rarely vetted or edited by papers, since syndication takes most of that onus off them. And I don't get how the blame falls on Joseph Wilson if Richard Armitage was the leak. By the way, for anyone else who has still not gotten it after, oh, five or six years, while this column does run on Comic Book Resources and does talk about comics, it is not a "comic book column." It's a "whatever the hell I think is interesting or important enough to talk about" column. I'd think after all this time that would have sunk in, but oh well...

From Archaia Studio Press:

MOUSE GUARD: THE DARK GHOSE #4 by David Peterson ($3.50)

MOUSE GUARD remains a strange little beast, a serialized comic in a children's book format featuring sword-and-sorcery adventures of mice, but it works as far as it goes. This is the best issue so far, well drawn and sharply written, and quite a bit more than usual happens here as events rocket along: one of the mice gets, literally, to the bottom of the conspiracy while the other two manage to recruit a new ally. The characters and story are strangely affecting, the more florid bits of earlier issues have largely fallen away, and it almost reads like it's worth $3.50. It still feels just a bit thin, but it's getting there.

ARTESIA BESEIGED #2 by Mark Smylie ($3.95)

They catch up so fast, don't they? Just last week, I gave the previous issue a good review, and this one's just as good. Again, in case you missed it last week: Smylie's quite adept at infusing a fairly realistic heroic fantasy tale, about a warrior queen trapped with her army in a city surrounded by a much greater force, with a great politics, paganism and energy. Well worth seeking out if heroic fantasy's your thing, and pretty good even if it isn't.

From Cryin Shark Studios:

TALES OF THE SILVERFISH #4 by John Q Adams & various ($2)

Bugs at war. Adams' mini-comic is a cut above most - the idea of a gang of silverfish roaming around getting into trouble initially sounds stupid, but the comic and characters (a host of virtually indistinguishable bugs) quickly grew on me - with Dave Sim surprisingly providing his own Cerebus knockoff in a very amusing comic-con sequence that easily redeems any flaws the comic has. Passable art, decent writing.

From Lost In The Dark Press:

FRAGILE PROPHET by Jeff Davidson & Stephen Buell ($9.95)

An eerie, touching graphic novel about a mentally-challenged boy who can see the future and the older brother who takes care of him and narrates, as they move from carny life to TV success to predestined murder with gothic creepiness. Davidson's story is straightforward and literate, but Buell's artwork is mildly distracting, Rick Geary-ish and completely fitting at its best but then he'll suddenly draw something that's merely stylelessly distorted, and it throws you right out of things. Still, a strong, effective and different sort of horror story.

I've really got to get this time thing worked out. Out of time again - but more reviews next week.

"Appeasement," of course, was British Prime Minister Chamberlain's policy for dealing with the Nazis prior to the outbreak of WWII, "giving" them a big chunk of Eastern Europe in, according to what's now the official myth, hopes that would satisfy their expansionist desires and avoid war - an ultimately fruitless hope now forever tarnishing all proposals that possible threats might respond to anything other than brute militaristic force. But that's just the myth. What was really going on was ultimately just as fruitless. A rabid anticommunist like most of the British elite of the time, Chamberlain's goal wasn't so much appeasement as to turn the eye of the German war machine eastward, setting them on a crash course with the real enemy, Stalinist Russia, in the hope that the two would clash, the clash would greatly weaken both, and England, which in the mid-'30s was far from equipped for another major war, would have time to re-arm sufficiently to cow whoever won the German-Russian War. A most cunning plan, as Blackadder's Baldrick would say. Too bad it was screwed up by those bastards Stalin and Hitler signing a non-aggression pact and essentially carving up Eastern Europe between them. Not that it wasn't, for both, also buying time - there's no doubt they eventually planned to war with each other - but the real message of Chamberlain isn't that "giving in to aggressors doesn't work" (though that message has clearly gotten through to many peoples around the world who consider the USA an aggressor, a notion the Iraq invasion and subsequent occupation has done nothing to dispel) but that if your big scheme requires a predictable response from other parties in order to succeed, you're screwed.

So it's easy to understand the White House's desperation, given things like Pentagon reports outlining the likelihood of a Vietnam-level failure in Iraq, or Israel's recent stalemate in Southern Lebanon. (I'm told in the last few days the Israeli media has been trying to spin the whole thing as a massive victory for Israel, despite their complete failure to rout Hizbollah or even to recover the two Israeli soldiers was the pretext for Israel's action, though apparently their release has now been negotiated.) Both Iraq and Lebanon were supposed to be stunning victories for "our" side, examples of how the forces of Radical Islam could not stand against western military might, and, simply, neither has worked out that way. Interestingly, both Hizbollah and Iraqi "insurgents" have done quite well in winning hearts and minds in their respective countries, not through propaganda so much as providing infrastructure and security for citizens in their realms of influence. We can demonize them in America all we want but it's hard to convince people someone's evil if that someone's the one making sure you and your family have drinking water.

It's not helping the Administration's stand that we're in the midst of big commemorations. The anniversary of Katrina has only served to remind everyone how few of the White House's promises of reconstruction in New Orleans have been carried out, and the 9/11 fifth anniversary, which in theory should be a rallying cry for the War On Terror, is equally a reminder of how White House promises to fix New York remain largely unfulfilled and a focal point of rising doubt about the official 9/11 story, which has been fed as much by the White House's obsession with secrecy as by facts in the case. And it doesn't help when information keeps coming out that the Pentagon has been faking letters from "high-ranking al-Qaeda official" al-Zirqawi claiming credit for suicide attacks (how many "third-in-command"s are there in al-Qaeda, anyway?) or that Mossad has created phony al-Qaeda cells, or that the Hand Puppet has decided the capture of Osama bin Laden is no longer one of our primary objectives. It's not helping that the new face of al-Qaeda, if you take recently released "al-Qaeda" tapes as the real thing and not convenient forgeries, seems to be a Jewish kid from California with strong family ties to organizations like the Anti-Defamation League. I'm not drawing any lines, that's just the facts, but it's hardly surprising that he's an unusual enough candidate for al-Qaeda recruitment that it's no wonder many are looking askance at the situation.

Then again, that's hardly the biggest irony around when an Administration steeped in acute policy secrecy and dedicated to an unanswerable presidency, institutionalizing kidnapping, torture, unwarranted wiretaps and the elimination of due process, ruling largely by propaganda (Rumsfeld's response to criticisms of his running of the Iraqi situation was to announce a $20 million project to bribe or coerce domestic and foreign broadcasters into presenting a more "positive" spin on Iraq) and gunning for habeus corpus and citizen privacy starts calling other people a resurgence of Nazism. Not that I think they're Nazis or that they view themselves that way, but actions speak louder than self-image. The fact, which you'd think we'd have learned from Vietnam, is that World War II ended sixty years ago and it's just not a World War II world anymore. As both the US and Israel have learned, massive armies are only good if you're fighting massive armies; all you get if you throw them against other forces are propaganda nightmares, and all you're stuck with are slogans: questioning our presence in Iraq is disgracing the memory of the American soldiers who've died there and selling out our boys (and girls) in uniform, questioning the official 9/11 report is disgracing the memory of the people who died when the Twin Towers crashed, etc. Call it appeasement, reason or whatever you like, we may finally have hit an era where large scale military actions are just no longer viable. Americans like to believe they're a naturally creative people; it's time to stop depending on tropes from 60 years ago and start getting creative.

For PC users, a company named Comodo has released a new firewall available free on permanent license at their website. I've had it running for a couple weeks now and as far as I can tell it works great, with very little memory and no conflicts with other programs. (Comodo claims to use a new technology that plugs holes other firewalls leave open, but I haven't the techspertise to verify that.) They also have other free software like an antivirus program, but I haven't run any of those. (I'm still using, and am perfectly happy with, Avast! anti-virus, which is also free, updates with shocking regularity and works better than any commercial antivirus program I've tried.

Wow, got a weird message from Marvel a couple minutes ago. Seems they're putting together a new Handbook, complete with obscure characters, and asked me for information on my creations The Gorilla Woman, Six (AKA The Amazing Six Armed Spider-Man) and Muck Monster. And I'm thinking - "Who?"

Turns out I did create them, sort of. Back in MARVEL TEAM-UP I wrote a story starring Spider-Man and Ghost Rider set in a traveling carnival, and those three were among the carnival acts. To say they were throwaway creations is gilding the lily. They were throwaway jokes, like the Ghost Rider being billed as "The Blazing Skull," after an obscure '40s Timely hero. Window dressing. In my version, they were just carnies. Muck Monster was a guy in a bad Man-Thing costume, based on the original SWAMP THING movie, "Six" was a legit freak with extra arms but that's it, and The Gorilla Woman, a more elaborate version of a bearded lady, didn't even appear except on a poster. (There was also the horrifically named Moonglow The Magician, but I didn't create him and that's another story.) Turns out close to fifteen years later someone briefly brought all three back as a flickering hero team (thanks loads, Scott) complete with superpowers, who subsequently vanished back into obscurity. Just goes to show you that in a business revolving around obsessive continuity and company ownership, even your jokes, even the worst of them, will come back to haunt you sooner or later.

Congratulations to second-time winner Mike Everleth, who was - barely - the first to correctly identify last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme as "skull." (The X-FILES connection is Agent Scully.) Mike wants to promote his own website, Bad Lit - "fighting the tyranny of movies, comics, books and other fictions." Pop on over for a look.

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.) Normally I leave a clue to the solution somewhere in the column, but this week I'll leave some friendly advice instead: don't bother hunting through The Grand Comics Database for more clues because the answer is right on the covers.

By the way, I'd like to apologize for last week miswriting the name of the Minneapolis bookstore chain Shinder's. Take another run over there to enter this month's comics giveaway contest.

As mentioned last week, the first issue of CSI: LYING IN THE GUTTERS, featuring the shocking murder of my fellow CBR columnist Rich Johnston plus a bevy of comics guest stars, is now on sale, from IDW, and if your local comic shop doesn't have it, get them on the stick! What do they think they're running there, a pretzel stand?

Another WHISPER newsletter will be making the rounds this afternoon, to bring everyone up to date on WHISPER #0 (Boom! Studios) and related matters. To subscribe, see below.

Available (along with a small catalog of other things) in pdf e-book form at Paper Movies and The Paper Movies Store:

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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