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Issue #272

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #272

Since we’re back on the cusp of That Holiday (take that!, Bill O’Reilly) (and, really, it’s the cusp of Those Holidays) it’s time (or, rather, was time two weeks ago) for a comics-related gift list. Magazines, and more recently sites, used to do this sort of thing all the time. Since other media outlets still do it for their little necks of the commercial woods, it raises the uncomfortable suspicion that there just aren’t that many appropriate gifts for comics fans out there anymore, despite the apparently widening public acceptance of the medium and some of its contents.

(Which shouldn’t be confused with public endorsement. If you think that’s a goal specifically worth pursuing, you still have work to do on that one. But, still…)

And I certainly don’t have a list, so it’s probably wisest to throw the question out to our advisor: you. Think of it as a last minute gifts for comics fans list. (Or, if you want to be clever about it, people you’d want to convert to comics fans. ‘Tis the season.) A couple ground rules:

Nothing priced more than $50 retail

Don’t mention SUPERMAN RETURNS

Nothing that requires mail order unless the source has special “delivery by Christmas” deals and total cost with shipping wouldn’t exceed $50

Let’s assume everyone already knows charitable contributions to whatever causes in someone’s name are always an option

Send your optimal gift suggestions to: The Permanent Damage Christmas list by noon, Tuesday Dec. 12. These can be books, gifts, website memberships, games, anything that would thrill and amaze, or would look shockingly cool under a colorfully decorated tree or near a menorah. Thanks.

(A brief snotty aside on the season: for the past few years, we’ve been regaled by the Christian Right and various politicians insisting this is a Christian nation founded by Christians for the pursuit of religious freedom, a pleasant myth that completely overlooks the mercantile, not religious, nature of many American colonies of the 1600s, and the more mercantile ones were the ones that survived. It’s the Pilgrim legend that largely feeds this myth, which was used as justification for last year’s push to have all shopkeepers say “Merry Christmas” to customers, which is continuing somewhat this year. But the Pilgrims didn’t celebrate Christmas. Or Easter. They thought them man-made holidays, and basically sacrilegious. So much for the heroes of the movement, not that anyone much celebrated Christmas before the 1900s…)

(And happy holidays.)

A couple weeks back, I blew off a column (lack of time, not will) with a joke about my disrupted intent that week to lay out a foolproof plan for creating an incredibly successful comics company. Apparently more than one person took me seriously, and wanted to know details of the plan.

Think about it. If there were such a plan, would I be openly sharing it on a public forum? Or would I be touring the offices of potential investors, trying to get rich off the scheme?

Publishing comics is tricky at the best of times, and, like everything else in comics, no magic formula exists. Even if there were, the formula would have to constantly change, or it would be moribund long before anyone else could put it to good use. (The originator might be able to squeak by.) Its processes very much mimic the natural process of evolution, which isn’t necessarily a good thing: statistically, extinction is the likeliest destination for any new lifeform. But publishers would benefit from viewing things in evolutionary terms. There are a lot of complexities in evolution, but the basics are really very simple:

Life gravitates toward environmental niches. Life adapts to environmental changes. Species that cannot adapt die out. Change is a continual, if sometimes glacially slow, process.

Comics publishing started out pretty much the same way life probably did, with all kinds of organisms gobbling up the same resource pool. As with comics publishers in the ’30s and ’40s, once the adaptation to the environment got over the initial fumbling there was, for a time, plenty of food to go around. Then there wasn’t. Mass extinction events have apparently hit the planet about five times, with the last being the meteor strike that seems to have wiped out the dinosaurs and made us possible by reconfiguring the environmental landscape, but earlier events were the result of natural processes, like worldwide eruptions of volcanoes that basically kicked so much sulfur into the air that nothing was able to survive but bacteria that ate sulfuric gases for food, possibly the greatest example of adaptation in history. Likewise the comics market has been periodically hit by “events” triggered mainly by outside forces; the companies that survived were the ones that managed to adapt.

Marvel Comics, for instance, began as one of the many “full service” publishers of the ’40s, leaping on whatever craze happened to pass through, and playing to every taste. It wasn’t until the ’60s that it found a niche it could fully exploit – superheroes, though it had done superhero comics in the early years – and it came close a couple of times to driving out the main other feeder on that niche, DC Comics, which has been unsuccessfully trying to reconquer the niche ever since. It has largely driven out every other company that tried to enter than niche, and has kept the survivors from exploiting the niche in any serious way.

The problem is that the currently most prosperous niches are already well exploited. New publishers face a choice: either feed on the same niches like the small furry mammals that co-existed with dinosaurs but were relegated to a sub-niche where even basic survival was strenuously difficult (preventing any real evolutionary development, which only occurred after the dinosaurs were wiped out and previously forbidden niches opened up) or they can find a new niche to exploit (like Viz, TokyoPop and Dark Horse did with manga, or Fantagraphics and Oni with alt comics). It’s a matter of competition. You’re either the best equipped to get to and keep the food than anyone else, or you’re the food.

Which isn’t how most comics publishers (or talent) like to view it, and it’s not like relatively peaceful co-existence can’t be maintained as long as the environment remains stable, but, paradoxically, by gravitating to the most apparently prosperous niches – everyone wants to make their money as quickly as possible, and overtly going for the money would seem a logical way to accomplish that – they cripple their prospects for long term survival. But a possibly scarier prospect is being the first into a niche; it’s usually the second entrant who’s most successful at exploiting a niche.

And pinpointing a niche suggests a game plan. Game plans are good, but not necessarily a survival tool. This is what fundamentalists of any stripe find it difficult, if not repugnant, to comprehend: while fervid belief in the rightness of one’s choices can be beneficial, pragmatism is apparently a much better survival tool. You have to make your choices not according to how you wish things were, but according to how they are. You got to deal with the real, as Iggy Pop once put it. That’s maybe the biggest problem facing the small or startup comics publisher; they tend to fall more toward Thomas Blake (“the firm belief that something is so will make it so”) than toward Iggy. Most of them don’t have any concept of a niche beyond their own desires – the hope that people will accept their project as good enough to want, rather than any particular talent for making it so – nor the resources to withstand the first harsh winter.

The first rule of comics publishing is the first rule of evolution: survive. The second rules are the same too: change in any way that benefits you. Everything else follows on.

NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARDS:

In case you missed mention last week, the new version of WHISPER, from Boom! Studios, was released last week. Diamond Order #JUN062973, if you want a copy and your local retailer tries telling you it’s unavailable.

Some reviews of the book: Fanboy Planet, Silver Bullet Comic Books, Silver Bullet Comic Books again, Eye On Comics. Overall response has been pretty good. A couple of corrections: several reviews seem to think the series has something more than a spiritual connection to the original WHISPER series despite my having done quite a few interviews stating exactly the opposite, and one seems to believe the project was originally intended for another publisher. It wasn’t. While I’ve been approached over the years by this publisher or that who wanted to start up a new Whisper series, Boom! was the only one interested in doing what I wanted to do; the others quite reasonably felt what I wanted – the old stories redrawn by a single artist if a “reprint” series, what Boom! has published if an original one – was unreasonable. There is a graphic novel written about the final story of the original Whisper that was intended to appear from AiT/PlanetLar Books, but was never drawn.

The latest issue of my other current project, CSI: DYING IN THE GUTTERS, featuring murder on the comics convention circuit and starring many real life comics talents like Joe Quesada, is also out, from IDW.

I’ve thrown in the towel and started up a Paper Movies Newsblog a replacement for the existing never-updated Paper Movies news page. It’s a matter of convenience; sending an email to your page, something Blogger allows, is a lot easier than pulling out Front Page, editing a news page, using an FTP program to access the hosting site, uploading the corrected page, loading up Firefox or Internet Explorer to check that it looks okay, then repeating the process to correct format glitches. There’s half an hour I don’t need to lose gone right there. So a-blogging it shall be. Not that there’s a lot to mention right now – for some reason I keep ending up involved in projects I can’t talk about, though I gather that’s par for the course these days – but come the new year there should be quite a bit.

Brian Hibbs is too busy being unimpressed by 52 this week to review WHISPER, but he does run a lovely little featurette on my pal Ralph Matthieu and his comics store Alternate Reality Comics here in Las Vegas, which is one of the best comics shops in the country and a living model of how to pack the most material into a fairly tiny space without making your shop look like wolves live there. For some pretty decent snaps of the shop, check out the page.

Since things have pretty much wrapped up in most editorial offices for the year, and aside from everyone trying to figure out the best spin to put on the now seemingly inevitable pullout from Iraq not much is likely to be going on politically, I’ll be taking a busman’s holiday the next couple weeks to cover whatever’s left in this year’s review pile. And there’s a lot of stuff. (What can I say? It has been a very unsettled year.)

Congratulations to Mark Millar for the latest addition to his family. She’s a cutie.

Also congratulations to Ray Gonzales, this week’s winner of the Comics Cover Challenge. As Ray was first to mention, the correct solution was “luck,” and all the covers featured something generally associated with luck, good or bad: the numbers 7 and 13, a rabbit’s foot, a black cat, a shamrock, horseshoes, a wheel of fortune. Ray would like to promote The Dragon Hatchery.

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.) Every week I also include a clue to the solution hidden somewhere in the column. Someone suggested this week I don’t, but, man, that’s just cold. Good luck. (As usual, more clues can be found at our cover source, the ineffable Grand Comic Book Database. My little Xmas present to you.)

Finally, as mentioned last week, over at The Paper Movies Store, there’s a specially priced package deal combining my three pdf books – TOTALLY OBVIOUS (collecting the legendary MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS columns), IMPOLITIC (political essays in the aftermath of terror) and HEAD CASES (a collection of comics scripts) – running until Christmas. Details are on the site, as well as a number of other graphic novels and comics-related product. Check it out.

Just so you know (and this isn’t part of the Comics Cover Challenge), following is the single best American comics page ever done, by Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood in EC’s FRONTLINE COMBAT:

What a tiny world we live in now. Not just the way the Internet has brought vast distances together. Used to be, at least in America, that if someone wanted to reinvent themselves, they packed up and move somewhere else. If there were ever a genuine American birthright, that was it; America itself was the invention of people out to reinvent themselves, and it’s undoubtedly one of the aspects of American culture most appealing to foreigners over the centuries, esp. those from cultures where person’s circumstances of birth controlled the course of their life. Not that we were ever completely free of that here, but that was the real lure of at least the idea of The West for many Americans: a place where you could go become someone or something else, where no one knew you. Back when the country and its possibilities must have seemed infinite.

Like most ideas, it bore the seeds of its own destruction. Becoming someone else where no one knows you only works in a culture where most people never travel more than 20 miles from their home town, but a land where travel is easy and relatively cheap and mobility is prized is a land that makes escape from a personal past considerably more difficult. Reinvention is basically a fraud, a pretense toward being something else with the dream of becoming what you pretend. There are innocent frauds – there are perfectly harmless reasons why someone might wish to completely change their life even down to their identity, and leave the past behind – but there are frauds that aren’t so innocent, people escaping crimes, obligations or responsibilities, people wishing not to seriously change but to replay old scenarios in new masks and take advantage of good will in a new town before moving on again. Laws to protect against the nasty type of fraud erode the success of any other kind, and once Social Security numbers became the mandatory method of tracking people (despite official claims, originally, that they would never be used for such a thing, with credit and debit card transactions now the semi-voluntary means) even the innocent form of reinvention became basically criminalized. As late as the early 1990s it was still possible to create a new identity for yourself, through fairly simple means – do a little research to find someone born roughly near your birth year and racial type who died very young in a distant part of the country, send away for their birth certificate, then use that birth certificate to obtain new identification under that name and you’re off – but databases that cross-reference birth and death dates have killed all that, and post-9/11, with it now apparently mandatory for the whole government (rather than just the IRS) to be dead certain of who everyone is.

And even if you do change yourself, where do you go? If you decide to abandon everything, even identity, and simply live off the land, what land that could support you is yet unspoken for? There are no frontiers left (physical frontiers, anyway) where you can carve out your own place if you like; the remaining frontiers, like outer space, are beyond common reach, in the sole hands of those who can afford them. (In the back of my head, Woody Guthrie sings “If you ain’t got the do-re-mi, boys, if you ain’t got the do-re-mi, well, you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee…”)

The legend of reinvention persists, and still appeals to many all around the world even if America itself doesn’t currently appeal to many. Illegal immigrants from Latin America are considered an evil by many Americans now, but what are they if not the greatest believers in the legendary promise of America, like all the waves of immigrants before them, back to the Pilgrims, maybe even back to Lief Erikson, even if the traditional America of endless promise and possibility exists in only bowdlerized form, if it ever really existed for even the vast masses of Americans. What’s the notion that you can raise yourself by your own bootstraps, that even the lowliest American can rise to be President, if not just another expression of reinvention? (No one really believes it anymore anyway.) Power fantasies are thought to be the core appeal of superhero comics, themselves a modernized version of the cowboy myth, but that’s only half of it. The superhero is the expression of reinvention, the gaining of special abilities allowing the hero to remake himself, but with the attendant fear expressed too: haunting the superhero myth is the threat of unmasking, of having our frauds revealed and being trapped again in dead lives and gored identities.

But now we are only what we are, no escape acceptable. “Reinvention” is now mere performance, a marketing strategy, but no one really expects anyone to forget the past, and whole industries are now built around dredging it up for entertainment and judgment. It’s no one’s doing, specifically, just social pressure hitting a critical mass. The myth of reinvention still lingers on, the heart of the American myth, but myth alone isn’t quite enough.

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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