Issue #263

NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARD: my busman's holiday concludes with commentary on the role of reviews; science fiction in comics; ABSOLUT DARK KNIGHT; more Fall TV; UN follies; and more

Fellow CBR columnist Hannibal Tabu got in an interesting online flap last week with Rob Liefeld, over Hannibal's blanket dismissal a couple weeks ago of Rob's SUPREMA #1/SUPREME SACRIFICE #0. I don't have a pony in this race - I didn't even know the comic existed before the flap came to may attention, and while I'd consider Hannibal a friend his opinions and his techniques are his and he certainly doesn't need me to fight his battles for him, if this even constitutes a battle. What I find interesting about it is a cycle of kneejerk reactions of both fans and pros to bad reviews.

Some wouldn't consider Hannibal's comment a review. Hannibal's pretty upfront about how he works; he doesn't waste a lot of time on comics he thinks are bad, he just says they're bad and moves on. In this case he wrote:

"To even get into "Suprema #1/Supreme Sacrifice #0" would dirty and compromise you as a reader and this column as a body of work. Let's just move on."

I can understand why that would piss off some people. (I only repeat it, by the way, so everyone knows what we're talking about. Like I said, I haven't read the book, so I can't endorse or challenge Hannibal's reaction.) But the varied message board responses indicate considerable confusion over the respective roles of a critic and a reviewer.

I love comics reviews. I think every comics reader with an Internet outlet, whether column, blog, podcast, email group, whatever, should be telling everyone within access what comics they liked and didn't like. (It would be nice if more of them talked about comics most other people weren't talking about - we only need so many WOLVERINE reviews - but any port in a storm.) A reviewer's job is simple: you tell people what you think merits their time, money and attention, and you tell them what you don't think merits it. Anyone can easily be a reviewer even if they don't have the slightest idea of what they're talking about because the real job of a reviewer is to respond. If you read, say, SANDMAN, and you think "man, this sucks," sure, you might have half a million Neil Gaiman fans crawling up you but that doesn't invalidate your response. As long as reviewers respond honestly to material, they're doing their job.

You don't have to agree with opinions for them to be of interest to you. Especially if you're a professional.

A critic, on the other hand, is someone who dissects a work or body of work, regardless of their view of its value, to find themes, or determine why it succeeds or fails, or to examine its place in an even greater tradition - in short, to lay a foundation for appreciating the work, and, usually, other works. In order to be a critic, you do have to have at least some idea of what you're talking about. That's what separates critics from reviewers: while it's the job of a reviewer to respond to material, it's the job of the critic to illuminate it. Reviews are about opinion, enlightened or otherwise. Criticism is about understanding.

I know why there's confusion about this. Most regular reviewers, and I don't discount myself, feel some need to write more about a work than "it's good" or "it's bad." It's a communication thing, really; you want to give your audience some basis for accepting that your opinion's worth listening to. There's also very little genuine criticism in America that filters down to a wide audience. Reading criticism is largely the purview of students living up to course requirements or a handful of criticism junkies, mostly attached to colleges in one way or another, willing to buy single focus specialty magazines or books of criticism. What passes for "criticism" on a popular level are reviews; Lisa Schwarzbaum may write 1500 words about the remake of ALL THE KING'S MEN in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY's film section, but aside from some pithy flourishes there's not really much more depth and discussion than in the 100 word sidebar review of RENAISSANCE. And that's okay. Nobody buys ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY for its deep thinking. They buy it for some idea of what to see at the movies that weekend, or what's on TV that might be worth checking out, or whether Clay Aiken's capable of turning out an album that sounds like anything more than syrup on butter. (I'm not putting down EW either; I subscribe, for exactly those reasons, except maybe the Clay Aiken one.) It also doesn't help that "criticism" in our culture is automatically taken to have negative connotations, like it's the opposite of "praise." So the word has taken on exoteric and esoteric meanings, and "critic" is too often used as a perjorative.

Which leads us to the responses to Hannibal's snippet. Again, while I can assess the accuracy of a couple of them, they're interesting mainly because they pop up time and time again in conversations like these.

Response #1, from Rob himself:

"Who cares about what a guy named Hannibal has to say..... Notorious-jealous-I-can't-do-comics-so-I'll-review-'em- guy."

Rob's in good company with this one. I really liked Roy Thomas' Marvel stories when I was a kid, back around the time just before Roy took over from Stan Lee as editor-in-chief at Marvel. But Roy (and some what followed him) had a really nasty habit when doing letter pages. Where Stan, when confronted with a serious gaffe or botched story logic, usually wrote an answer like "Shuck, you got us, true believer! But that's why we have you nutty Marvel maniacs around, to keep us honest. And to buy the magnificent multitude of Marvel masterpieces, of course." Roy frequently wrote things like, "Sure, it's easy to find flaws, but some of us would rather create comics than nitpick them." I always thought that was an incredibly snotty thing to say because, even then, it was pretty obvious that most of us would. Whether Hannibal is trying to get his own comics published has no more bearing on his review than his name does. But dismissing a review via dismissing the reviewer has been a popular diversionary tactic among comics professionals for decades now.

Response #2:

"He's probably the type of dude that hates the majority of what's popular, but you know he's first in line to buy it... lol"

This seems to be a popular belief about reviewers in general, that they're secretly devoted to popular material but put on a pose of being above it all. Because it's not that a reviewer doesn't recognize a work of genius, it's that he willfully denies it.

Response #3:

"And you just know he didn't even read it."

Another assumption people like to leap to when confronting a bad review of something they liked. I always find it interesting they don't leap to the same assumption when confronting a good review of something they liked or a bad review of something they didn't like. It's not that the reviewer has a different opinion, it's that the reviewer is deliberately ethically negligent. Sure! That has to be it!

Response #4:

"One, the guy I'm sure didn't even understand was going on in it, so it must suck, right?"

No, a reviewer can understand a comic perfectly well and still think it sucks. But if he doesn't understand what's going on in a comic, whose fault is that? Talk about blaming the victim...

Response #5:

"The way this guy wrote his little snippet review was rude and not constructive at all."

I'm not sure where this notion got started that reviews are supposed to contain constructive criticism. As mentioned above, that's the job of the critic, not the reviewer. Besides, "constructive criticism" is usually as unwelcome as any other kind, and them what indulge in it tend to get dismissed out of hand as busy-body know-it-alls who, if they're so smart, why aren't they making millions writing or drawing comics instead of writing about them? It's a no-win situation.

Response #6:

"Then looky looky, oh my gosh, Liefeld's name is on the cover, must suck, right? Wish people would give books a chance than just bashing them since Rob's name is on the cover."

This line of reasoning tends to be the last resort of the oversensitive: the reviewer must be letting personal feelings taint or supersede pure unadulterated response to material. It's true that no response to material is strictly pure, unless the reader is completely ignorant of the work's provenance, and even in the absence of credits I'd expect many longtime comics readers could pick out art or writing styles of many professionals, so that even if you didn't know X had drawn CREEPING MIDRIFF BULGE MAN you might identify that it was either done by X or someone strongly influenced by X. And we all bring a certain amount of baggage to our reviews; there are talents whose work I've learned to be wary of, though I'm occasionally pleasantly surprised by them, but that's got no bearing on what I think of them personally. The person isn't the work, and vice versa. I know people who don't like my work and I get along with them fine. There are professionals whose work I love but I wouldn't want to live in the same state as them. It's a fine balancing act between having an open mind and applying experience, and it's not an exact science. That said, there was nothing in the review to even suggest a vendetta, and only two things do: an overt statement or a running pattern over time.

Response #7:

"It wasn't a review... it was an insult without reason."

Hannibal's review was certainly short and dismissive, so I can understand why fans of the work might consider it an insult, but it did fulfill the duties of a review - as reviews constitute a buyer's guide, it indicated that the book in question wasn't worth Hannibal's readers' time or money, and it did that tersely and effectively - and there were two reasons behind it. 1) To fulfill the function of a review and 2) to allow his readers a glimpse into what he doesn't like - why should he spend a lot of time on what he doesn't like, really? - because a reviewer's audience can only get a real grasp of his tastes by knowing both likes and dislikes.

Beyond all that, the dismissive snippet serves a perfectly valid function in reviewing: it dismisses.

Which, again, isn't to say I agree with Hannibal's or am trying to warn people off SUPREMA/SUPREME SACRIFICE. Like I said, I haven't seen the book and don't know anything about it. I've received dismissive snippet reviews; no one knows better than me how infuriating they are. Creator sensitivities aside, there are business considerations: in this market where the vast majority of comics and publishers struggle to stay alive, reviews constitute cheap promotion, and are often the only promotional avenue small comics publishers have. So a bad review can be not only painful but injurious to a book's health. But bad reviews are a cost of doing business. The only way to avoid them is to not publish, because just as every comic, no matter how awful is someone's favorite, no comic, no matter how good, will be liked by everyone. (If worst comes to worst, you can always fall back on the old publisher/creator litany about how your readers have the only opinions that matter to you.)

Ultimately, all feedback is noise in the system, creatively. Not that there's no such thing as creative use of feedback, but, as Hemingway once said, don't pay attention to the good things people say about you because then you have to pay attention to the bad things.

Been hearing rumors of a couple forthcoming attempts at science fiction comics lines, including one involving an old friend. I wish them all luck, but science fiction comics have, for some reason, always been a hard sell, and especially in the direct market. (Helix and Ad Astra come to mind, as failed lines from major companies.) While there have been increasing numbers of science fiction fans who are also comics fans, it doesn't yet seem to have hit critical mass; for many science fiction fans, comics are a step down the social ladder - and there has never been a fandom as obsessed with its social standing and desperate for vindication as sf fandom - while for many comics fans, science fiction comics are basically superhero comics that have been spayed. I don't get it, and whenever I mention it, both sf fans and comics fans rush forward to tell me how dead wrong I am, but then you look at sales and ask around sf conventions and bookstores, and you get a picture a lot closer to the one I'm painting. Of course, anyone creating science fiction comics has to avoid the CrossGen error, which is that it's not enough to simply "do" a genre in comics and expect fans of that genre in other media to pay attention, you have to do it better that it's done in other media, or at least provide something they can't get elsewhere and do it well. TRANSMETROPOLITAN's a good example. My old pal, at least, is building on the backs of some established properties, which may cut him a foothold in the comics shops, at least. Again, I wish all of them luck - we can always use more high-profile property diversity in comics - but I don't envy them.

I see DC released the ABSOLUTE DARK KNIGHT edition, collecting all of Frank Miller's breakthrough Batman stories (and anyone who doubts DARK KNIGHT RETURNS completely revitalized the character, even though the series ironically was actually Frank's rather blatant statement - pretty well borne out since - that nothing was let to revitalize, just wasn't paying attention) between classy hard covers. While I take a back seat to no man in my admiration for the material, including the recent comedic sequel, THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES BACK, that raised the blood pressure and ire of so many fanboys, I'll wait for the ABSOLUT edition. Because, much as I liked them the first time, it'd take a bottle of vodka to get me reading those whole series again.

The debut of SMITH (CBS, 9P Tuesdays) was a pleasant surprise last week, not that the great ensemble cast of Ray Liotta, Virginia Madsen, Amy Smart, the very underrated Jonny Lee Miller, and Simon Baker as a charming, womanizing psychopath wasn't some indicator that the show might not be bad. Oddly, many of the things that gutted Andre Braugher's THIEF series on FX last spring, like the cliché of crew leader Liotta swearing he'll do one more job and then he's out (that's so audiences will know he's really a good guy at heart), work here. So far. The big if on heist shows is how long they can sustain what's essentially a one-trick pony; it comes down to the chemistry. But everyone works well together, even if Baker steals the show (if this is TV's answer to OCEAN'S ELEVEN, he's Brad Pitt), and the initial episode didn't strain credulity, had some very nice bits like Liotta starting a "business" trip by going to another house around the corner to change clothes and cars, and gave all the actors nice showoff moments. What's best is very little attempt to sanitize the criminals in the show, especially Baker and Smart, though I expect if the show hits there'll be pressure to make the characters more "likable," because that's how networks think. For now, I'm in.

SHARK (CBS, 10P Thursday), I dunno. James Woods is always great to watch, and they're essentially turning him into Gregory House here, as an unpleasantly doctrinaire defense attorney convinced by remorse and a late-midlife crisis to go to work for the D.A., leading a team of young lame-o prosecutors on a crusade to put away the ones who always get away with it, i.e. the celebrity clients Woods' Stark used to defend. So far Woods is the show, bit they're already struggling to "humanize" the character via a creepy daughter and a "we hate each other, this can only end in bed" relationship with former adversary/new, reluctant boss Jeri Ryan, completely missing the point that what humanizes House, the clear model for Stark, is that he is so resolutely, misanthropically himself. The writing is sloppy - at one point Stark tells his callow new protégés to burn six words into their skulls, then tells them seven - and way too obvious - the murderess he's prosecuting blows up her own self-defense alibi so blatantly that not only did I catch it before she had even finished the sentence but for neither Stark nor her own defense attorney to have seen it before the wowie scene where he crushes the murderess on the witness stand only makes them look incompetent, yet it was presented as an example of how brilliant Stark is at cutting through to the truth. The only real truth in the show so far is that Woods could make dramatic readings of cocktail napkins interesting, and SHARK is pleasantly innocuous, much more an occasional timekiller than must-see TV.

Congratulations to Daniel Boyd, who correctly realized that all the comics pictured in last week's Comics Cover Challenge either started crazes - MAD humor, CRYPT OF TERROR horror, CRIME DOES NOT PAY crime, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES creator-owned black and white comics, etc. - or starred characters like Superman that started them. In each case, they changed, short-term or -long, the face of the medium. (See, Bart? I told you it could be figured out just by looking at the covers... if you knew your comics history.) Daniel doesn't have any site to push, so he graciously threw it open to a non-winner's choice of site. In this case, that'd be frequent Permanent Damage Message Board poster Bart Lidowsky, who came awfully close but didn't quite get there. Rather than a right-wing blog, Bart has opted instead to promote Scott Shaw!'s Oddball Comics... which coincidentally makes this an extremely Comic Book Resources column for a change. Who am I missing? Erik Larsen? Augie De Blieck Jr.?

You may be saying I missed Rich Johnston, but his comics pro killer didn't, and the hunt for the killer continues in the new issue of CSI: DYING IN THE GUTTERS, which should be out either this Wednesday or next from IDW. (My comps came yesterday.) It's Rich as you've never seen him before: dead. Don't miss it.

Funny thing happened the other morning. Having had a long, long night finishing some work, then starting the morning very, very early to take care of some errands that wouldn't wait, I got home about 8AM and decided to doze for half an hour or so, just to get my equilibrium back. (I find this very effective in beating the need for sleep, which is a useless waste of time anyway.) When I doze I turn on the TV at a reasonably loud volume so my mind can hook into something and not drift off into complete unconsciousness; it's like a fishhook you can reel yourself in on when you want. Looking for something on TV, I flipped past Cox Cable's block of news channels and noticed they were all showing the same thing. So I left CNN on and started drifting off.

And woke up with a great sense of disorientation as I suddenly realized some woman was very blandly calling our president the devil. Then I learned she was only the translator and it was Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, indulging in a flamboyant bit of theater at the UN. It was a good week for that at the United Nations last week, and it was still a pretty surrealistic moment to hear it on American TV.

But Americans are funny like that. We're allowed to think our president is the devil - I still have conservatives tell me that Clinton was the devil, and they don't see any problem with that because, apparently, that's true - but nobody else is allowed to say it. So I was curious to see how the press would respond, and they sure didn't disappoint. Most harped on Chavez clearly being unhinged - not like our politician, no sirree - and the deepest coverage I saw was a newspaper editorial acknowledging that the whole "devil" thing was just theater, and that Chavez's purpose in addressing the UN came a little later, when he suggested they move UN HQ out of New York to some more "neutral" country. Like, oh, Venezuela.

Except that wasn't his real message at all. (You don't have to take my word for it: here's his speech.) His point came toward the end, where he asked why the nations of the world were allowing the United States government to decide who's a terrorist and who isn't, accompanied by a list of terrorists - just not al-Qaeda terrorists - not only known to the US government but protected by them. Chavez focused mainly on terrorists who've been active in South America, but it doesn't take much more than a cursory examination of the record to find plenty all over the world. Which, whatever you think of Chavez (and there's no doubt he's a showboater with dreams of making Venezuela a superpower just because the country has the greatest known volume of oil reserves in the world), are pretty good points. If you read the American press, you'll find only one real question presented regarding Chavez's speech: is he a lunatic because he says the Hand Puppet is the devil, or does he say the Hand Puppet is the devil because he's a lunatic? It's all coming back to me that Chavez was the person man of God Pat Robertson said we should assassinate. (Before he said he didn't say "assassinate," even though he did, when he said, "If [Chavez] is so certain we're going to assassinate him, we should just go ahead and do it.")

Certainly there's no argument to be made that the Hand Puppet is the devil because he prodded Congress last week into authorizing him to authorize the CIA to use "extreme" measures (AKA torture, but we don't say that anymore) to get information out of "terror suspects," including torturing children to get their parents to roll over. Meanwhile, studies have determined that torture in Iraq is at the same level or greater than it was during the worst of Saddam Hussein's reign there, as pretty much all regions of the country disintegrate into ethnic civil war and American generals put forth the plan of digging a huge protective trench around Baghdad, which is what, prior to our invasion, they claimed Saddam was going to do. Just makes you so glad we invaded, doesn't it? But just so's you'll feel better about it, economist David Walker has crunched the numbers and figured out that the money we're spending on Iraq and other ventures, both foreign and domestic, largely borrowed from other nations because this administration's tax cuts have wiped out any surplus we might have had while spending increases have routinely outstripped the much-touted rate of economic growth - that debt will collapse our economy c. 2040. (Right now, you owe about $375,000 on the national debt.) 34 years and counting... Good thing we've got the Democrats to make things right again.

Oh... wait...

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.) Last week's challenge turned out to be a bit tough, so here's something easier. I'd leave clue, but I don't want to repeat myself.

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.

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.

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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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