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Issue #264

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #264

Welcome to the ALL-NEW! ALL-DIFFERENT! PERMANENT DAMAGE!

the urban landscape – emptiness and motion

Nah, not really. A smidgen of facelifting, maybe; we are in year six now. I remember when comics used to do that, just scrape the barnacles off the characters once in awhile and go on, like when they decided kryptonite had turned into too much of a story crutch and got rid of it all (and Superman ate a piece, for effect). Or when they abruptly decided to have Batman and Robin stop battling aliens and traveling in time and return to their crimefighting roots, with a marginally redesigned costume. No big multi-issue buildup or semi-psychotic crisis of faith to be overcome, just WHAM!, it was done, and on with the show. I remember the Batman changeover, from when I was a kid, when Julie Schwarz, Carmine Infantino and Joe Giella took over the Bat-books (I bet most people don’t even remember when there were only two Bat-books, or three if you count WORLD’S FINEST, but in my circles virtually nobody did), and just having it explode on the stands like that, it was just there, so eyecatchingly different from what existed only a month earlier, that you just had to check it out. Of course, in those days everything published was a surprise in some way. There was no comics press, no advance listings, nothing but the newsstands and whatever existed in the comics in the way of teasers and house ads. You kind of knew when the next issue of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN was due to show up, but anything new on the racks (if it made it there; distributors had a bad habit of automatically stripping covers off first issues and returning them to the publishers for credit) was an attention-getter, at least until you got a look inside.

Nowadays everyone who’s even vaguely interested knows everything that’s going to happen in a book six months ahead of time, promotional departments reveal spoilers as a matter of course, and distributors no longer gut first issues, retailers just don’t order them. And “revamping” is a way of life. Revamps exist at the intersection of fannish obsession and corporate fixation on franchises, and it’s a bad combination. Especially with the other common mindset since the ’70s, the idea of “blowoff” characters, concepts that, for whatever reason, an editor or writer thought were idiotic so they oversaw some storyline ridiculing them. (Hey, I’ve been there, done that; I once wrote the Hulk grinding Tony Isabella’s monster-hero It The Living Colossus into “Dust! Dust! DUST!” in a parody of Jim Shooter’s AVENGERS scene where Korvac “destroys” Starhawk with the same words. Has It The Living Colossus been seen since?) Once you confirm for an audience that even you think a character is idiotic or second-rate, especially if they had their doubts in the first place, it’s hard to bring them back from that. There’s only one way, really: figure out what the character’s hidden potential is (the problem, in comics, being that not only do some characters not have hidden potential, most don’t), strip away anything not related to that potential, then let whoever has had the vision to see the potential run with it. That’s a much bigger order than it sounds, and if that character was without their own book for a substantial period, odds are one inane character-destroying abuse after another was inflicted on them (probably in the name of “realism,” especially if the character was female), and that usually presents almost insurmountable odds. I’ve always been a big fan of Marvel’s Black Knight, for instance, but he has appeared in so many gimmick/costume/character variations now that he could only be converted into a top tier character – and, really, there’s no reason otherwise he couldn’t be – if everyone agreed to forget everything else that has been done with him. There’s no doubt Giffen and deMatteis’ comedy version of The Blue Beetle worked great in their run on JUSTICE LEAGUE AMERICA, but convincing anyone to take the character, or any character with the name, seriously in it’s wake – hey, good luck with that!

So what do we get now? New characters in old identities or cosmetic restructuring of old characters. But in (obsessive) continuity-driven comics there’s no scraping the barnacles off. Even revamped characters carry all the baggage of earlier versions. Or it is taint? Once past the hideously ugly costume, I like the new Atom well enough, Gail Simone’s doing a pretty decent job on the writing, and I’m all in favor of Asian-American heroes esp. if what makes them interesting has nothing to do with martial arts, mystic arts, ninjas, samurai, ancient masters, triads or yakuza, but, really, is anything (on the action front, not character bits) being done with the new Atom that couldn’t have been done with Ray Palmer just as well? Remember when they gave the big song and dance about Kyle Rainer being a better Green Lantern than Hal Jordan because he was an artist so he could project big cartoon animals with his power ring instead of big boxing gloves? Wow. Then there are the characters they keep launching in their own titles over and over and over, and you just keep asking why because the characters – like Dr. Strange, usually characters only the people who want to write or draw them are interested in buying, and then they’re not interesting in buying any version they don’t write or draw – never sell, and the quality of talent involved rarely seems to be a factor. Comics are littered with them, and they’re now the traditional fallback of companies that don’t like to do creator-owned details. There rarely seems to be any real vision behind them; they’re not so much new takes as repackaged ones. You don’t want to make it obvious that franchise desperation is your motivation.

The biggest problem is that almost none of it’s surprising. That’s the trouble with readers; do the same thing over and over and over, and they get bored, even if they fight change tooth and nail too. Revamps just don’t have the force they used to, and everyone’s hip enough to franchise considerations that no one believes, for instance, that Spider-Man’s really going to stay with his “iron spider” costume, so no one buys into the ‘illusion of change’ gimmick anymore either, unless they were born yesterday. I think the industry underestimates how big a sales factor surprise used to be: that moment of raw discovery, whether a character or concept that opened your eyes to something you never thought of before, a story twist or a great line that’s perfect but you never saw it coming, art that makes you catch your breath, a book that you didn’t know existed but you’ve got to have it. Given our current system, I’m not sure how we can reincorporate the element of surprise, that sense of discovery, but it’ll be a surprise if anyone does.

supercrystalizing time on a single page for maximum emotional
impact

Speaking of which, was doing some research this past week on an unrelated project, I ended up looking at some comics pages I hadn’t seen in a long time, from Jim Steranko and Bernie Krigstein, and I still find them as surprising as the first time I saw them. Of the two, Krigstein is actually the more original and idiosyncratic, but to some extent that also makes him the less significant of the two in the broader scope of comics art; being more of a dramatist in the theatrical sense than a storyteller in the comics sense, his was a style few others could aspire to. Krigstein stands as a solitary island in a vast sea, while Steranko remains a life raft. Unlike Steranko, Krigstein shares one trait with the great majority of American comics artists: much of his work, especially work produced for companies other than EC (which somewhat encouraged experimentation) and Atlas (which doesn’t seem to have cared as long as publishable pages arrives), he was in the position much of his career of having to dumb down his work to editorial specifications. (This seems particularly true in DC’s war books, where Krigstein’s style usually stands out but his designs are muted and frequently indistinguishable from those of other artists like Ross Andru and Irv Novick.)

There’s no denying Steranko’s generous borrowing from sources (much of his Marvel work can justifiably be described as Jack Kirby inked by Wally Wood working over Will Eisner’s layouts, with Walter Gibson’s sensibilities) but what he mostly borrowed was inspiration (as opposed to the swiping that’s part of the standard comics artists toolbox) and what stands out most about his work is his sheer instinct for the punch. Steranko had one huge advantage denied to virtually all his artistic comrades of the time. Most comics artists pumped out pages like there was no tomorrow, and under those circumstances it’s hard to remain innovative; you have to develop little tricks and constantly reuse them just to stay afloat. Somehow Steranko remained apart from all that, synthesizing influences from both in and out of comics (whatever Stan Lee believed about Marvel Pop Art Productions, there was never a comics artist as attuned to pop art as Steranko was). Each of his stories were an event. This had a downside as well: his running lack of presence and the sheer shock of his stylistic flourishes kept him from becoming a major influence on the medium. Not that his influence isn’t still felt in comics, but mainly via the few artists who followed in his footsteps, but while many of them became good artists none of them made a satisfactory Steranko. (Unlike his main “competitor” of the era, Neal Adams, who brought a new cinematic sensibility and art style that turned out to be amazingly easy for other artists to “borrow,” who turned his innovations into overexposed clichés that ultimately made Adams’ own work look like a knockoff to many.)

Like Krigstein, though, Steranko’s work was all about the drama, something most of his imitators, who were mostly about the imitation, missed. Both are dramatically underexposed to modern audiences. (But Krigstein always was.) So here are three pages from each, to get the process started. Interestingly, Krigstein’s cartoony figures are freer, with more sense of life and movement than Steranko’s. Krigstein’s figures, often in intentionally awkward, surprising positions, are intended to look human, while Steranko’s, in more standard heroic mode, are more concerned with presence and power, so the two make an interesting contrast. (Which is preferable depends on the desired effect.) Between them they straddle pretty much all the possibilities of modern “mainstream” comics, and did it over thirty years ago, but it’s still possible to get a shock from them even when you’re familiar with the work. How many comics that came out last year can you say that about?

From Del Rey Manga:

artist in the throes of creativity – the power of expression
and gesture

GHOST HUNT Vol 5 by Fuyumi Ono & Shiho Inada ($10.95)

This series, about a team of ghosthunters combining religious, scientific, psychic and mystical methods of uncovering and eliminating paranormal threats gets more interesting with every volume. This one pits heroine Mai, a high school girl with burgeoning psychic abilities, against her boss and potential love interest, the haughty Naru, as they try to free a school from one of the nastier spirit threats I’ve run across, and it great to watch them both slowly growing as characters as well as plot gimmicks. The art’s not much above passable – it works, but there’s nothing spectacular about it – but the stories are more novelistic and sure with every episode. The actual story in this volume gets overshadowed for me by the news (I presume this already happened in Japan, and I’d love to know the rationale behind it) that the creators have ceased magazine serialization of their story, which henceforth goes straight to graphic novel. Is this an isolated incident or a Japanese trend? At any rate, the series remains good.

Q-KO-CHAN THE EARTH INVADER GIRL Vol 2 by Ueda Hajime ($10.95)

Not so good – not good at all – is Q-KO-CHAN, easily the most incoherent manga in memory. Hajime was also responsible for FLCL, but that was whimsical and daring. This is just… incoherent. Sketchy if vaguely charming, incoherent art that provides little context and mostly indistinguishable characters collapses under the weight of a story involving kids piloting girl robots that transform into giant, obtusely related mecha that have some sort of incoherent alien war/social apocalypse backstory amid elliptical musings on love, combat, society. This final volume doesn’t so much end as peters out. I have no idea what actually happened in it. Pass.

From TwoMorrows Publishing:

layout and special effects as storytelling

BACK ISSUE #18 ed Michael Eury ($6.95)

Another fanboy treat, with a theme worthy of Comics Cover Challenge: green. Look for lots of art involving The Hulk, Green Arrow, Green Lantern… including a slew of particularly tasty Neal Adams pieces. Interviews with Adams, Mike Grell, and Peter David are all entertaining, and a chat between Gerry Conway and John Romita about the famous Gwen Stacy death scene is particularly interesting. I wouldn’t call BACK ISSUE a deep magazine, but it’s informative and lively, and if nothing else Eury has a good eye for art and he covers a lot of territory. It’s a good, light read.

The passage of the Military Commissions Act has sent a number of commentators into hysteria about the dawn of dictatorship in America. Which is a bit ridiculous. Despite making it unnecessary for the government to bring an arrested person before a judge (as long as they’ve been labeled a terrorist, but since the arrests can be kept secret, the label can be kept secret as well), despite the destruction of due process under those circumstances, despite authorizing the use of “extreme interrogation techniques,” despite remanding all such accused to the suspect mercy of military courts rather than civilian courts and essentially criminalizing any attempts to interfere with the process via the latter courts, and leaving it up to the discretion of the president to decide who falls under what jurisdisction, the act does not herald the dawn of dictatorship in America. Powers is as powers does. The current president only becomes a dictator if he uses his newly graced powers to behave as a dictator. So far that hasn’t happened.

Of course, it hasn’t even been a week yet.

What is has done is dramatically raised the odds that America could become a dictatorship. The Republican majority that rammed the bill through so they’d be able to campaign for the November elections throughout October as being tough on terrorism (and the Democratic minority who went along with it so they wouldn’t have to spend October explaining why they’re weak on terrorism) pressed the public relations point that the bill would only apply to terrorists and undesirable aliens, and not in any way to American citizens. Which is kind of true, if you want to give logic a head to toe massage. There’s language in the bill that can apply only to American citizens, especially those involving persons accused of giving aid and comfort to the enemy (which, by Dick Cheney’s definition, includes reporters and newspapers publishing unpleasant facts about American politicians or American foreign adventures), and it clearly does give the President, by whatever criteria he chooses, the right to label anyone an “enemy combatant.” This power also existed in the Patriot Act, but now you can get there by “wrongfully aiding the enemy,” which translates into “breaching allegiance” to the government. Only American citizens can breach allegiance to the American government, and the way the legislation is phrased, the dictates of the government, which means whatever administration happens to be in place, supersede allegiance to the Constitution. If you happen to catch the enemy combatant label, you effectively become no longer an American citizen, since once the label has been invoked you automatically lose all your rights. So there’s that cute little logical sleight-of-hand. Sometimes they get it right – there’s no denying John Lindt Walker was out there training to be an anti-American terrorist – but either puts an awful lot of faith in their ability to get it right or shrugs off as inconsequential any time they get it wrong. (i.e. Jose Padilla, who, it turns out, they never had any evidence against.)

effective contrasts as dynamic layout – large panels/small
panels, supersaturated color/black and white

The philosophically interesting thing is how we’ve disintegrated from a people who believe rights were innate to a people who’ve come to tacitly accept that rights are negotiable gifts from the governing body. Either rights are innate or they aren’t, or Americans are a specially privileged people who stand alone as deserving rights. And that gets you onto really shaky ground, philosophically. It says, basically, that only the mighty deserve rights… but what happens if someone else becomes the mighty? (I know we’re not supposed to discuss possibilities like that, but if history teaches us anything it’s that eventually all empires fall.) The concept of innate rights protects us, but if they don’t apply to everyone everywhere they’re not innate, and if they’re not innate there’s not even an argument for protection. Sure, we consider convicted criminals to have abrogated their rights, but the key word there is convicted. The Military Commissions Act doesn’t require conviction, only accusation, and not even public accusation.

This might not be so troubling had Attorney General Gonzales not capped off the week by hurling a not-so-veiled threat at federal judges, including the Supreme Court, who might wish to apply American domestic law (like a little something called The Constitution) to “military proceedings” put into play by the President. While he didn’t say it in so many words, the implication was that judges who cross the Administration, as the Supreme Court did when they voided the detainee policy that this legislation was rushed forth to replace, could find themselves either investigated or secretly arrested for that “aid and comfort” thing. But, just for the sake of argument, let’s assume the Hand Puppet has no interest in becoming a dictator and will perform with the utmost discretion and respect for American traditions. Presumably these provisions won’t go out of effect when he leaves office, so what’s the prevent the next president from opting to experience the full width and breadth of the powers they bestow? Or the president after that, or after that? The White House has said from the start that the war on terror – and, more recently, the war in Iraq – will likely last for decades. Maybe we’ll be lucky, and it’ll be like the mutually-assured-destruction nuclear policy of the Cold War that kept it from ever erupting into all-out nuclear war; maybe presidents from here on in will only hang the Act above the heads of Congress and the courts to keep them in line with administration desires. Whatever path we take, one thing’s clear: if the war on terror (and neither that nor the “war in Iraq,” which the Hand Puppet himself declared ended over three years ago and which has never been re-declared, are actual wars) goes on for decades and legislation like this keeps getting passed, whatever passes for American democracy on the other end of it won’t look like anything we’d recognize.

All that’s overshadowed, of course, by the Mark Foley scandal, as the now former representative from Florida runs the risk of being sent to prison under the anti-pedophile legislation he pushed through. While certainly nowhere near the importance to the American future as the Military Commissions Act, and to some extent an unwelcome distraction from that issue, it’s possible this could become an administration-toppling issue. (Not likely, but possible.) I first heard about Foley about a year and a half ago, via scandalous unproven rumors that include a male sex ring operating on Capital Hill and Pennsylvania Ave. (In fact, the sex ring rumors go back a long ways – that Republican shill who got the phony press credentials from the White House so he could hurl softball questions at administration mouthpieces during official press conferences is said to have participated in it, and was recruited for hit “reporter” job from it – with Foley being a late addition.) More interesting are subsequent revelations that the House leadership knew of Foley’s behavior at least a year ago (the press first reported the story last November but it was largely ignored) and did nothing. The press hasn’t yet tried to connect the dots that I’m aware of, but it seems to strain the concept of coincidence a bit to forget that Foley was a key player in the Florida Republican apparatus fronted by – Gov. “Jeb” Bush, who is being touted in some quarters as the Republican heir to the White House throne in 2008. Did the Republican leadership in the House look away to avoid embarrassing the governor and, by extension, the White House?

Notes From Under The Floorboards:

Fiddling with the column again, as you no doubt can tell. To make things a little easier on myself, now that I’m plunging into a number of projects, I’m trying to limit it to 3000 words a week, though it’ll obviously take some practice. Bear with.

pop art as action

Congratulations to Elbert Or, who correctly identified last week’s Comics Cover Challenge theme as “twins.” All comics pictured features twins, whether actual twins such as the Trigger Twins in ALL-STAR WESTERN, evil counterparts like Professor Zoom in that DC COMICS PRESENTS Flash/Superman story, triplets like Huey, Dewey and Louie, or other variants on the theme. Elbert wishes to direct you to his own website, where he regularly posts his own comics and art, so go take a look.

The Killers finally released their long-awaited second album, SAM’S TOWN, named for a locals casino over on Boulder Highway. (For those unfamiliar with Las Vegas, no, that’s nowhere near the legendary strip.) The album’s not a bad pop album, with half a dozen catchy songs and nothing horrible, and while I wouldn’t call it a classic, it’s amusing to all the bad reviews it’s getting, apparently from critics who read frontman Brandon Flowers tipping his hat to Bruce Springsteen, so now they’re all referring to SAM’S TOWN as a Springsteen homage gone awry. Me, I don’t even vaguely hear Springsteen in it. (I keep reading critics refer to the first album as lifted from Duran Duran, which is borderline idiotic.) What the band has done is tried to move their sound from the club venue sound of the first album to a ’70s-style arena rock sound, with varying success. As a result, much of the album sounds like Robert Smith (if there’s any identifiable influence on their first album, it’s The Cure) fronting Queen. I don’t mind it; I don’t know how often I’m going to play it. But considering that the first album was originally trashed but now seems to be revered as some sort of pop icon, I suspect time will redeem this one’s reputation too.

Just stumbled across a CD set that came out in ’02, MEMPHIS BELLES: The Women Of Sun Records. Sun was the premier rock label of the ’50s, introducing stars like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, but while I’m well familiar with its male stars, I had no idea it released records by so many women. Sun may not have invented rockabilly but it went a long way toward popularizing it, but aside from Wanda Jackson and Janis Martin, the involvement of women in rockabilly, where country-western, jive and blues collided in often steamy performances, isn’t well documented. Unfortunately, after the first CD in this six-CD set, which appears to go in more or less chronological order, the rockabilly mostly gives way to straight country or syrupy teen pop (the bulk of America really wasn’t ready for raunchy chick singers, especially not white ones) but that first disc has some great surprises, particularly Mikki Milan, who I’ve never heard of before but ripped out the rockabilly with seething, throaty excellence. Don’t know if I’d recommend buying the set but it’s worth a listen if you get the chance.

No Comics Cover Challenge this week, since my main source for covers, The Grand Comics Database, is currently inaccessible for some reason. Nothing else to talk about this week, but if there’s some topic you’d like my take on, or any questions you’d like answered (yes, the Earth really was created on October 22, 4004 BC at ten o’clock in the morning, though I’m not sure if that’s Julian, Gregorian or Jewish calendar… or Mayan, it could be Mayan…), drop me a line and I’ll see what I can do.

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.

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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