Issue #268

Damn. It's amazing just how little there is to talk about regarding comics these days. On one hand, the medium has evolved into a cultural darling. On the other, a bland sameness, an ennui, has fallen over the entire field, with various publishers mainly enforcing their notions of what comics are regardless of audience interest, and nobody's really talking about much at all. When the main topic of discussion is who's your favorite character on HEROES, there's a problem.

What mostly seems to have gotten the panties of a vocal few in a bunch recently is WIRED columnist Tony Long's declaration that a graphic novel should not be nominated for a National Book Award. Which has led to a pretty good, if inadvertent, exegesis on the real state of comics in America today.

Not that I have any particular sympathy for Long's viewpoint in general - he's one of those cultural luddites who seem to believe that no new experience can ever measure up to the tried and true, the type that blame modern illiteracy on the fairly egalitarian availability of the Internet - but in this instance he's not entirely wrong. The graphic novel in question is Gene Luen Yang's AMERICAN BORN CHINESE, which Long admits to not having read. I haven't either. Long's premise is "... it's a comic book. And comic books should not be nominated for National Book Awards, in any category. That should be reserved for books that are, well, all words… This is not about denigrating the comic book, or graphic novel, or whatever you want to call it. This is not to say that illustrated stories don't constitute an art form or that you can't get tremendous satisfaction from them. This is simply to say that, as literature, the comic book does not deserve equal status with real novels, or short stories. It's apples and oranges… If you've ever tried writing a real novel, you'll know where I'm coming from."

I do know where he's coming from. And he's not exactly right either.

It's hard to tell how much of Long's attitude is simply the same cultural snobbery that sent some into a tizzy when Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN got nominated for a World Fantasy Award. (It's one thing to say that a graphic novel can't possibly measure up to the standards of, say, William Gaddis' JR, which I cite mainly because it's the last thing I can remember winning the National Book Award, which shows how much attention I pay to it or most other awards, but there's no doubt that Neil & divers hands' comic was easily the equal or better of most of the flaming crap that passes for fantasy novels these days.) Long's argument is obviously based on an easily explodable bias that comics material - which he seems to suggest is inherently juvenile in nature, a longstanding proposition among cultural and social elites who have largely done what they could to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy - can not possibly, ever, be the equal of a prose novel. Which is at least partly true. Because both use words, there's a constant confusion and desire to parallel the two, a tendency the term "graphic novel" exacerbates. But comics and novels work in different ways, so any strict attempt to parallel the two is doomed by a logical flaw. Novels can do things comics can't, certainly, and we can argue all day about whether those things represent something inherently more sophisticated and superior. But comics can also do things novels can't, and simply that many comics haven't done those things is no argument that they can't. In some ways, we're currently in the great era of experimenting with the form; the breadth and depth of its capabilities have yet to be determined.

I know it's not fashionable to discuss Marshall McLuhan these days - the current widespread dismissal of McLuhan isn't so much a dismissal of his theories as of various increasingly inventive interpretations by others, with those interpretations being confused with the theories - but he basically strung media, including print, along a line from hot to cool. Both comics and prose are print, of course, but comics are inherently "hotter" than novels, as the visual element of them produces a more immediate and visceral response than prose, which requires cooperation and digestion, can achieve. The worst comic book is still a more immediate and visceral experience than the best novel. Which doesn't make the comic book superior, only different; one could make easily make the argument that prose creates, in the long run, a deeper experience by requiring the reader to invest himself in the material in ways comics don't.

As Long says, apples and oranges.

But while I think Long's basic premise is ridiculously off the mark, his conclusions strike me as reasonable, for different reasons, one, in fact, having to do with fashion.

Funny, I was just talking with someone yesterday after fashion in prose writing, how writers widely touted in the not too distant past, like Saul Bellow, who was once being circulated as the perfect American writer, are never mentioned today. He's out of fashion, except in narrow markets. William Burroughs is largely out of fashion, and at one point he was being called the greatest novelist of the 20th century. (Then again, so was Kafka, Faulkner, and dozens of others, and it's the 21st century now.) It was mentioned that the "mainstream" novel has become its own genre, with publishers enforcing certain conventions on it, rather than the applauded core of fiction that it was as late as thirty years ago, with all other genres dangling off it like ignored junks drifting unacknowledged alongside a great ocean liner. The '60s and '70s pretty much changed that, as colleges and universities felt the need to move from hallowed, elitist places of learning and lure in greater numbers of students by appealing to their broader interests, sort of the way the Catholic Church introduced folk masses to sell its continued relevancy to "the kids."

As pop culture became the bait to draw greater numbers to academia, it wasn't long before it took greater importance in curricula, and competitive pressures sent hundreds, maybe thousands, of grad students and doctoral candidates scrambling for virgin pop culture territory for thesis subjects in hopes of demonstrating their originality. A lot of real nonsense has been promoted in this way over the years. And literary circles aren't immune to such things; there's a constant pressure there among publishers and critics alike to discover "the next big thing," just like comics editors live under constant pressure to find the next "hot artist," even though the time of that concept may have passed. If a critic/student can't come up with a new take on a familiar writer's work, better to find a new subject. Though they like to present themselves as the great bastion of true culture, the literary world is as subject to the whims of fashion as any other. Whichever thesis gets pushed the hardest, or by the person with the most clout, or fits the best into someone's notion of marketability becomes dominant until the next one comes around. The literary industry is an industry like any other.

Which is why I find the nomination of Yang's book a bit suspect. Like Long, I suspect it's pretty good; it would have to be to even begin to justify the nomination. Yet I also have the suspicion that the nomination is an attempt by National Book Award committee to achieve some level of street cred and demonstrate their continued relevance, and in this case it's most likely that the nomination is the award, unless they undermine that theory by giving AMERICAN BORN CHINESE the award. Unlike Long, my skepticism doesn't extend from a belief in the inherent subliterate worthlessness of the form, but from my reading; while I have a great belief in the potential of the graphic novel, I've yet to read one, with the arguable exception of Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell's FROM HELL, that comes anywhere near achieving the density and depth of a good novel, let alone an exceptional one. Comics aren't exactly a new field, but the graphic novel is, and while we can certainly judge the relative qualities of graphic novels on their own merits, setting them head-on against top notch prose fiction is so far a dodgy prospect. The medium hasn't yet developed sophisticated enough tools to compete in that arena, and that's something we have to work on in concert. Not that there aren't potential roadmaps out there, like Bryan Talbot's forthcoming meditation on Alice In Wonderland. But.

Unless AMERICAN BORN CHINESE is that damn good. But it smells like something else is going on here. Unless, as I said, the book wins in its category, in which case I'll reassess. Can't wait to read it, though.

Don't know if you noticed, but Congress, hand in hand with the Hand Puppet, just passed and signed into law (Public Law 109-364) a measure greatly weakening restrictions on a president's ability to declare martial law, federalize National Guard troops without agreement by states, and convert the federal military into a domestic peacekeeping force allowed anywhere at any time. If you were unaware, that's excusable, since most news outlets haven't mentioned it, and the bill was signed into law in a closed-door ceremony, apparently to keep it out of the public eye. Not explained was the urgency, the relative secrecy (not that obsessive secrecy and avoidance of public scrutiny hasn't been a hallmark of this administration since its installation) or the necessity of the measure. It's also shy on definitions of what constitutes a "public emergency," which the President may declare at will, or "public disorder," which the measure gives the President an open mandate to "suppress."

All this is in keeping with the rapid expansion of Presidential powers and discretion in the last five years, to the point where the "Imperial Presidency" is no longer strictly rhetoric or paranoid fantasy. You can make the argument, as with most other recent "improvements" to presidential powers, that the President was already empowered to declare martial law and suppress public disorder, and this only "restates" that power. But this particular one also makes a president functionally unanswerable for misuse of that power, another hallmark of presidential powers expanded under the current administration. The Supreme Court is, of course, a last bastion against presidential caprice, as when they recently declared the White House's views on incarceration without prosecution or representation, torture, and ignoring treaty and international law unconstitutional, sending the White House scrambling to Congress for a bill - signed into law on the same day as 109-364 - granting permission for all those things, and granting it retroactively to stave off potential prosecution for war crimes, which the Supreme Court's decision de facto called the administration's policies. The question is whether declaration of martial law could suspend the courts, including the Supreme Court, or Congress, as it would suspend much of the rest of the Constitution for the duration of the period of crisis, which, again, would be left to the president's discretion.

Moves like these become interesting in the light of administration rhetoric as the 2006 elections move into their final week. Over pleas from many Republican candidates, the Hand Puppet's on the campaign trail, spewing a contradictory mixed message: we're winning the war in Iraq, and changes in our strategy are necessary because things in Iraq are going so badly. Not surprisingly, Republicans - mainly the Hand Puppet, Cheney, and Karl Rove - are desperately trying to link the Democrats to appeasement and defeat in Iraq, and Cheney has openly stated that electing Democrats will send the message to the Iraqi insurgency that America is ready to fold. But at this point, when the Iraqi police and security forces are riddled with the elements they're supposed to be controlling, when millions of dollars are stolen from aid programs by Iraqi criminals and the Iraqi government can't get help from Americans or the British to go after and prosecute them because that would mean America and Britain going public about the level of corruption, when American soldiers in Iraq are being killed three+ a day, and even the beleaguered Iraqi president is challenging the Hand Puppet's public statements about the state of Iraq, why on earth would our "resolve" be anything but laughable to them? The state of Iraq now - by all reports but the official administration version, a morass of civil war and civic collapse - after three years of American occupation has rendered "resolve" hubris.

So it's amusing that the new cant of right-wing pundits for anyone questioning administration Iraq policy is the question, "Do you want us to win the war in Iraq?" (Bill O'Reilly repeated it over and over on DAVID LETTERMAN the other night, and many others have been using it, same phrasing and all.) It's a question purposely framed to trap the respondent: yes means you have to support the administration, no means you're a traitorous defeatist. But we are not at war in Iraq! To the Hand Puppet Congress gave the power to declare the war, and he also declared it over, when the Iraqi forces lost on the battlefield. This is an occupation. But ask people if they want the US to win the occupation, and it puts the situation in an unpleasant light.

The late election season has been filled with excitement and desperation, with Republican candidates in particular resorting to slur ads (like the Tennessee ad with a bimbo telling a Democratic candidate she'll see him again later at the Playboy Club, which the Republican National Committee then said they had nothing to do with, even thought they paid for it) and push polls. (A push poll is a telephone vote solicitation masquerading as a poll, slurring an opponent, like in Ohio where a Republican candidate, who has also used his state position to engage in all sorts of tricks to invalidate votes he doesn't want, has been using a push poll asking voters if they would still vote for the Democratic opposition if they knew that candidate employed sex offenders on his campaign staff? Turns out the Democratic candidate did employ a convicted sex offender whose records were sealed because it was a juvenile manner so the candidate had no way of knowing, and sent the guy packing the instant he found out. But that's too much explanation. What was really too much explanation for the Republican candidate behind the poll was the revelation he also had a convicted sex offender on his staff, knew about it, and didn't fire the guy?) Karl Rove keeps promising a "November surprise" that will demolish the Democrats' gains in Congress? Is the massive RNC spending on nasty gimmicks, along with White House redirections of federal money going to districts of besieged Republican candidates and usually announced by the candidates themselves, that surprise? Or are they just going to use what time in control of Congress they have left to paint themselves concerned by passing a slew of symbolic but functionally meaningless populist measures, like the recent bill to erect an immigrant-thwarting fence the length of the US-Mexican border - that doesn't include any funding for the project?

Last week, I mentioned the Jim Gibbons story, about the current US Representative and Nevada gubernatorial candidate accused of a compromising situation, and it has taken odds turns since. To compound his troubles, Gibbons, a self-proclaimed anti-illegal-immigrant champion, was discovered to have employed an illegal alien as domestic staff in recent years. The "scandal" got funnier over the weekend, as security tapes from the garage where the incident occurred - a cocktail waitress claims Gibbons put the moves on her as he was walking her to her car - and a headline on the local conservative paper, the Review-Journal, declared they exonerated Gibbons, a claim Gibbons has freely thrown around since. But. The tapes have their own strange history now. Responding to the original complaint, cops went off to get the tapes, telling the alleged victim it would take them an hour. Four hours later, during which a police officer impressed on the alleged victim that it would be a bad idea to press the matter, officers returned with the story that, for some reason, no security footage had been shot during the time of the incident. Gibbons' subsequent blustering only made people more suspicious, until the local sheriff, whose campaign had been run by Gibbons' current campaign manager, stepped in to say Gibbons was a great guy and there wasn't any formal complaint for the police to pursue. Which only brought up questions about why the sheriff had been phoning up the subject of a potential criminal case to apprise him of aspects of the case.

Leading the sheriff to a press conference where he announced that if the alleged victim chose to pursue the matter, they would launch a full investigation, but she hadn't so they hadn't, so their hands were tied. The following day the victim and her lawyer held their own press conference reiterating details of the situation so far and announcing they'd be filing an official complaint against Gibbons.

More reviews:

From Del Rey Books:

NODAME CANTABILE Vol 7 by Tomoko Ninomiya ($10.95)

Continuing a dramedy centering around college music students, which isn't nearly as dull as it sounds. Not dull at all, in fact. Lacing virtually everything that conventional wisdom suggests indicates "manga," the storyline now mainly follows graduates forming their own upstart orchestra and subsequently determining the depth of their strengths, weaknesses and obsessions, and undergraduate savant heroine Noda, planning to be a schoolteacher while practicing piano and writing music, becoming a personal obsession for a young musician and a professional one for a teacher determined to leave a legacy. Not much in the line of action or even story development here, just an engrossing story about gifted people leading quiet but interesting lives.


The cross-dimensional quest for heroine Sakura's memories takes a quintet of adventurers to a futuristic otherworldly sky race as intrigue closes in all around them. The series remains a bit slow, with all kinds of asides to other Clamp series (especially, in this volume, CARDCAPTOR SAKURA), and they need to bump the character development into gear. It's not bad, and it's pretty enough, but it depends an awful lot on the reader's willingness to play along.

SUGAR SUGAR RUNE by Moyoco Anno ($10.95)

What began as little more than a little girl's fantasy - two young witchlings come to the human world to prove their worthiness to be queen by getting mortal boys to fall in love with them - has morphed into a fairly dark meditation on ethics and prejudice, of all things, with the "good" girl siding with evil and the "bad" girl becoming the protector of all that's right and good, and both learning some relatively sophisticated lessons of the heart along the way. Though still mainly aimed at pre-teen girls, it's surprisingly enjoyable.

From TwoMorrows Books:

ALTER EGO #62 ed Roy Thomas ($6.95)

ALTER EGO's like a box of chocolates; you're never sure what you're going to get. This issue's both more themed and more of a potpourri than most, fixating on monster and mystery comics for Halloween, with variable success. Interviews, with Mike Ploog (who drew WEREWOLF BY NIGHT, FRANKENSTEIN and GHOST RIDER for Marvel in the '70s), Al Williamson and Rudy Palais are entertaining but mostly anecdotal and in no sense deep, and other articles - on American Comics Group's "horror" comics of the '50s and '60s, The Shadow, and the golden age's Frankenstein series - will likely only appeal to those already interested in them, as will the traditional, mostly '40s-Captain Marvel-centric regular features. Which isn't to say it's bad. It's readable enough, but even good magazines have slow issues once in awhile.

ROUGH STUFF #2 ed Bob McLeod ($6.95)

Also not exactly deep - the feature interview with Paul Gulacy is mainly distinguished by his uncertain opinion of Daniel Craig as James Bond and the revelation that Gulacy lets his cat out in the morning - but not meant to be. ROUGH STUFF exists for comics art, much in pre-inked pencil form (it delights in comparing pencil originals to published inked works), and that it handles pretty well. Portfolios from Gulacy, Frank Brunner, Matt Wagner, Alex Toth and others, and sometimes the art is even educational; the charms of Brian Apthorp's art, for instance, are far more apparent from what's published here than from anything of his I've seen in print. Worth a look.

From Digital Webbing:

E-MAN RECHARGED! #1 Limited Edition by Nicola Cuti & Joe Staton ($3.99)

Throwback tongue-in-cheek superhero funnies. E-Man was always a problematic if enjoyable concept, whimsical but not really funny: alien energy being takes human form and gets stripper girl friend who ends up with identical powers. In its own little limbo, the series works perfectly well (if you can take bipedal koala mascots and bad puns like a villainess called "Sara Bellum," a joke which, unfortunately, they were beaten to by the Powerpuff Girls) and Cuti & Station at least have an idea of what "fun" means when they talk about fun comics. And that's a problem. E-MAN is fun, but only mildly, and not compelling (nor, obviously, is it meant to be); the story is just sort of there; and too many of the jokes will fly by many people, like supporting private detective Mickey Mauser (no, that's a joke but not what I'm talking about) running along with gum on his shoe. Longtime E-Man fans will feel all warm and cuddly, but I can't see anyone coming to the series cold doing anything but scratching their heads.

From Lobrau Productions:

TOUPYDOOPS #4 by Kevin McShane ($3.50)

After three very good issues, McShane's tale of a cartoon (in a world where cartoons are real and exist alongside people) trying to break into Hollywood (where, instead of movies, they produce comic books) treads water, as hero Toupydoops, recently ejected from a studio job, looks for work and finds it as a kindergarten teacher, while his roommate has a one-night stand who won't go away. And nothing happens. McShane's got a good eye for screwball comedy, but in this issue he doesn't let it get in his way.

From DC Comics:

SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY #1 by Grant Morrison & J.H. Williams III ($3.99)

Despite tentative promotion, Morrison's 7 SOLDIERS was the best Big Event of the last year from either major, with an original concept (a "team" of heroes that never meet or know they're a team), a great launch issue and an array of mostly intriguing mini-series - until the big wrap-up failed to materialize. Now materialize it has, sneaking out like a thief in the night, and for good reason: it's a mess. A glorious mess, but a mess, cramming into 41 pages what easily could have used a dozen more. Morrison's flamboyant style and Williams' deft grace (evident even when he's doing Kirby pastiches - and Morrison gets the clunky rhythm of Kirby's NEW GODS prose exactly right) almost save it, but there's just too much going on, too little space for properly reintroducing characters and situations, too many threads left dangling (what was with that Vigilante ghost, anyway?) and too much time wasted inserting a new mythology that hadn't even been suggested by anything else in the series. Not that there aren't also a lot of great lines ("I've attended several Justice League Of America seminars on how to stay calm during the apocalypse") and great twists (and one of the 7 Soldiers does die, as promised, but what it's got to do with the main story I couldn't tell you) - and let me reiterate that Williams does an absolutely kickass job on the art - but it ultimately comes out just feeling... obligatory, like something that had to be finished before other projects could be started. Too bad.

Knocking off early because it's Halloween and I've got trick-or-treat duty. Maybe I'll blade my forehead like a pro wrestler and answer the door with blood dripping down my face. Ooooo YEAH! At any rate, it's no longer Halloween as you read this, so happy Dia de los Muertos. Or, as Loudon Wainwright sings, suddenly it's Christmas, right after Halloween. Forget about Thanksgiving, it's just a buffet in between...

Doubtless plenty of other people have linked to this, but Neil Gaiman, through his fights over creation Angela and possession Miracleman, has learned something about copyright law, and shares it for anyone wondering how to draft a will to protect their heirs' rights in their creations. This is something not even a lot of probate lawyers know that much about - it doesn't commonly fall into their range of experience short of a rarified clientele - and even the many who have never created anything and have no rights to protect may find it enlightening.

Fair warning dept: if I can pull them off I've got a couple of weird things coming up over the next couple of weeks. Just because it's November. I hate November. Always have.

Congratulations to the many who identified last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme as "sound" and especially to Nicolas Juzda, who identified it first. Unfortunately, what with everything else going on in the last week, I forgot to tell him (I thought I had, honest!), so, Nicolas, you've got a push coming. Scattered throughout the column are the covers for this week's Comics Cover Challenge. Seven comics, one secret theme connecting them. Be the first one to tell me what it is in an email, and you can promote any website of your choice here. (We reserve right of approval, but that hasn't been an issue so far.) I know you're expecting a clue, but, sorry, not in this lifetime. Good luck. (As always, if you need help, you can find it at The Comic Book Database.

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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