Issue #276

I can't say 2006 was a particularly good year for me. For various reasons my visible output was way down, aside from the column, and most of the work I did involves long term payoffs that won't materialize for awhile, leaving my cash flow shakier than usual. My dog died, as regular readers will remember. (And, no, I'm not getting another anytime soon.) Otherwise nothing major went sour, though various delays and circumstances not within my control ended up hobbling the new launch of WHISPER, and lots and lots of petty annoyances and irritations combined into one long, sustained pain in the ass. Oddly, most of the people I've spoken to were in the same boat in 2006, suffering through a year long accruing gauntlet of pointless and meaningless time-consuming crap rather than any sort of catastrophes.

Whatever else may be said for 2007, I can only imagine that particular situation getting worse for most of us, because there's now a whole culture of people and organizations out there whose main objective, function and purpose is to generate that sort of crap and then try to tell us it's important to our lives. So maybe it's time we just start telling them to piss off and see where it gets us. See, I have this theory that, contrary to the whole "survival of the strongest" nonsense pop culture constantly throws at us, the main component of human nature, if it can be said to exist at all, is cooperation. At heart, we're social creatures, we accept the existence of the social unit as important to survival. Which historically makes a lot of sense; as primates living in trees in the savannah, our earliest ancestors and a couple hundred millennia of their descendents must have depended very much on the social group for their survival against stronger, faster predators. The impulse develops with the human race to tribalism, a sentiment that still strongly grips many of us; while tribes might often fight, within most tribes cooperation is usually the strongest and most essential value. We are hardwired to work with each other.

Which has its downsides. In the plus column, working together can achieve great and lasting things and overcome great obstacles. In the minus column, wars wouldn't be possible without the urge to cooperation, or dictatorships. People can cooperate to accomplish bad things as well as good. Cooperation on its own merits isn't much of an ethical yardstick. But when, say, someone decides out of the blue there's just one more form you have to fill out before you can get something you need, you may grumble but you fill out that form. Don't you? That's the way things quietly erode for most of us. Especially since what you "want" rarely turns out when you get it to be what you thought it should be.

Maybe the resolution most of us need to make this year is to be a little less cooperative. It wouldn't take all that much. Stop suffering in silence and call 'em on it. Every once in awhile some comics publisher decides he's going to take the missed deadlines thing by the horns, and puts in his standard contract that for every week past deadline that work comes in the page rate goes down. I've run into that four or five times, though deadlines aren't generally my problem - unless the publisher's not paying anything upfront, and then, sorry, paying work has to come first, man, because I have bills to pay too - and I've met it each time with the same thing: I insert a counterclause raising the page rate for every week past the due date the check doesn't come. The original proposition has a tendency to immediately vanish, and no more is said of it. Same basic principle here. The doctor keeps you in the waiting room for two hours past your appointment time? Bill him for your time. Why the hell not? He'd bill you for wasting his. The first time some jerk with the cable company or a hotel or whatever gives you any grief or disinterest over a problem you're having, ask for the next person up the chain, and keep asking as far up the chain as you need to go.

My prediction: come next Christmas you'll be a lot happier with yourself. Someone tries to dump some sort of petty crap on you, judiciously spread it around. It'll come back to them eventually.

This is, of course, the time of year when everyone starts making predictions. 2007 in comics? Haven't a clue. No predictions available, or probably necessary, because, frankly, I don't see a lot of urge for change out there. What passes for change for most comics people anyway are things like Archie's "updating" of Betty and Veronica; while I've got no problem with keeping characters fresh and modern, shifting them from looking like the book was done in the '50s to looking like it was done in the '70s doesn't really constitute an update. But the urge for change has to generate from somewhere, and even among the lowest rung of people involved in comics these days - the creator of original material - there's no real desire for change. They don't really want anything changed, they just want what already exists working for them instead. There's no pressure for change from the audience, which is really several different audiences now: the "trad" comics fan (Marvel and DC), the manga fan, and, in far smaller numbers, the "alt-comics"/"art comics" fan. And the casual audience, which seems to be on the rise, but nobody does anything for "casual" readers anymore. The general notion is that there's no percentage in "casual" readers unless they can be converted into fans, and that argument isn't without its logic. While I doubt retailers would shy away from any new system that would put more money in their pockets, I don't seem them supporting such a system, even if one were to arise, unless it were firmly established and risk-adjusted elsewhere. Which makes business sense for retailers, let's face it. The main alternative distribution scheme out there now, bookstore distribution, doesn't exactly work to their benefit. Comics shops took off at the intersection of growing demand and lack of many other places to find comics; any system that makes comics more physically accessible to the general public undermines the comics shop as key point of access.

Online comics still have potential, possibly the most potential, but they're hampered by being presented basically as the Sunday Funnies of the web, a concept that already seems staid and dislocated from cultural immediacy, and by the lack so far of a "killer ap," that one online comic so vital and so compelling and so right now that it not only sucks in huge audiences but also makes an impeccable argument for the validity of the form. There are good online comics out there, but that hasn't happened yet.

It's not like a comics company couldn't go against Marvel and win. Marvel has really come up in the last few years, and many of their books do seem fresh and intriguing again, but they're still living off a 45 year old paradigm. It has proved resilient and more flexible than it had a right to be, but much of what Marvel's doing now is also straining it toward its breaking point (though that has been said before, and Marvel has managed to come back from it each time). It wouldn't take all that much work to brainstorm "the next big thing" and put it into play, but, as with online comics, it would take something vital, compelling and immediate, something people couldn't look away from. The main reason that's not going to happen is that people looking to comics - creators, other publishers, audiences - look to Marvel (sometimes in disgust, but they still look), and while Marvel may not be invincible creatively, financially they're still a juggernaut, and, aside from manga, the money mechanics of the American comics business still revolve around them. But money, as I mentioned with retailers, finds its security in the past and the established. That's just the way it is, and that makes Marvel tough to beat on its own playground, as DC is regularly reminded. Any comics publisher seriously interested in taking on Marvel will have to create its own playground. Which is what Marvel did.

(Comics publishers are rarely futurists anyway. Ask a comics publisher to predict the big craze of 2007 and you're likely to get an answer like "Gangsta rap will gain public attention.")

So what's the future of comics creatively in 2007? Same as usual. In the corporate comics realm, micromanaged functionaries. In the creator-owned realm, a lot of people either trying to imitate corporate comics or successful creator-owned comic (spiritually if not creatively) or people trying to create comics that movie companies will buy the rights to or people duplicating things that have already been done because they've got no real idea of what has been done and what hasn't. And, every once in a very blue moon, someone coming up with something original and exciting that will nonetheless languish in obscurity until the creator is offered an assignment on IRON MAN.

And no trends to speak of. Oh, except zombie comics.

But here the upside: none of the above is an excuse to not try. Get on it, and remember: what happens in 2008 will get set in motion in 2007.

Learn to take the long view. Happy new year.

Of course, Ford didn't stay unnoticed for long. If Nixon's abrupt resignation in the face of almost certain impeachment - which the resignation short-circuited - nearly triggered a Constitutional crisis, so did Ford's sudden ascension to the Oval Office, since he'd been elected to neither the presidency nor the vice-presidency. Had Ford been a more abrasive or domineering guy, the question surely would've taken center stage, but the fact was he was the poster boy for "Why Can't We Be Friends?" politics, right at that very fleeting point where Washington DC was out to prove to America that not every politician lurking within its borders was a power-mad C.R.E.E.P.

Now, if you believe the press, Gerry Ford's presidency was not only the subject of loving fascination for all America - he was the original People's Princess! - but perhaps the most pivotal for the survival of the Union since Lincoln's. The first I heard of Ford's death was Tom Brokaw, on TODAY, nostalgically reminiscing on the uniting effect "The Ford Family" had on the country in the aftermath of Watergate. Turns out we were charmed by the sight of the strapping young Ford lads bringing their dates home to the White House ("and possibly the Lincoln bedroom!" Brokaw snorted, nudge nudge wink wink) and fretted anxiously over which gown the daughter was going to wear to her prom.

What flaming crap. I don't remember ever once taking any interest in any of that, nor do I remember anyone, in any medium, ever mentioning it. Everybody knew about the Ford Family, but interested? Nobody cared. Despite him being the certain Republican candidate in 1976, everybody knew, once it became clear he wasn't going to abruptly name himself dictator-for-life or anything like that, Ford was a caretaker president, filling the seat in the Oval Office the way runners fill seats at the Oscars for actors who have to go to the bathroom, and his number was up come the '76 elections. I suspect Ford knew it.

But over the last few days the media focus has shifted away from the family to apparently settle on the new official myth of Ford as the man whose leadership somehow saved the country from destruction in the face of Watergate. But Nixon had already done that, by abdicating. That in itself showed the country was capable of setting itself right, that even the Presidency wasn't above the law. (A principle that several presidents since have found fault with, and, esp. the current one, did their best to overturn.) It was important, I heard one pundit say over the weekend, that Ford "tied off" the Watergate Scandal by pardoning Nixon (both for crimes he may have committed and for those he might in the future be discovered to have committed). But that's completely wrong-headed. Would the sight of a former president on trial, even convicted, for lawbreaking and flagrant abuse of power, really have damaged the country's psyche? Does anyone really believe presidents are inherently greater than "ordinary" men? Does anyone really believe the office itself would have been, or would be, forever tarnished by someone who had once filled it being convicted of a crime? Or would it simply send a message, be a reaffirmation, that in America a president is at best only first among equals and held to the same standards as any citizen? It seems to me that's a pretty good message to send, worth the price of the sending, and one that would gain much more respect than derision from the rest of the world. If the argument is that such a thing would discourage others from seeking the office because they too might be held responsible for their decisions and actions, that sounds like a pretty good deal too. Anyone worried about being held responsible for what they do, or order others to do, shouldn't be president in the first place.

But that's Ford's main legacy, and the thing he'll mainly be remembered for: he pardoned Nixon. You can say he ended the Vietnam War, but it would be more proper to say it ended on his watch, the finale of the Vietnamization that began under Nixon; Ford didn't oversee it so much as not interfere with it. Among his other "achievements" were giving political life to Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney (both of whom served as his chief of staff at one point or another) and the original George Bush, who Ford put in charge of "saving" the then-beleaguered CIA. (Their crimes were also catching up with them; Bush's mandate was to see that didn't happen, and he did it well.) But I suspect in the long run he'll mainly be remembered by Chevy Chase's portrayal of him, weekly on the first season of SATURDAY NIGHT LIFE, as a dimwitted, stumbling klutz who couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time. (I'm not suggesting that's how Ford really was - I couldn't say - only that over the years more people will see Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford than Gerald Ford. The power of media. I also recall when he took office THE NATIONAL LAMPOON ran a page of Gerry Ford jokes, among which were "Q: How can you tell when Gerry Ford's been bribed by influential Washington lobbyists? A: You can smell the peanuts on his breath." and "Gerry Ford thinks executive clemency is where Nixon spends his summer vacations." You might not get the latter now, but, trust me, in context it was damn funny.)

On the other hand, you could easily argue that Ford's most lasting, and most valuable, legacy may turn out to be his lack of achievement while president. Either willfully or by nature (and unlike certain Hand Puppets who shall remain nameless) Ford appears to have had no urge to leave his mark on the office, the nation or history. (For this reason Alexander Cockburn considers Ford one of our greatest presidents ever.) It's too bad that will never be widely acknowledged as his true legacy, because more presidents could do with following the example, and I suspect the country and the world would end up a lot happier if a lot fewer presidents viewed themselves as agenda-driven movers and shakers and a lot more considered themselves, as Ford obviously did, caretakers.

Next week is the annual Consumer Electronics Show - according to the last e-mail I got from them 1.7 million square feet of the hottest electronic consumer products available - so even though the show starts on Monday this year, and the first day is the day to be there, the column might end up a day late next week. I'll try to avoid it, though.

After the relative disaster area of the fall TV season, the new TV season is about to kick into overdrive, with the return of shows like 24 and the debut of new shows like DIRT (FX, Tues; said not to be very good) and THE KNIGHTS OF PROSPERITY (ABC, Wed; a heist comedy about guys trying to rob Mick Jagger, supposed to be a sleeper hit in the making). Meanwhile, decided to watch the DVD set of HBO's BIG LOVE, about closeted polygamists headed by Bill Paxton and Jeanne Tripplehorn, trying to live the Yuppie dream in Utah while feuding with the head of their splinter church (made up, apparently, largely of self-obsessed geriatric yokels so uncouth that uncouth doesn't begin to cover it). It turns out to be a pretty decent little soap opera, with clever dialogue, some great character turns, and excellent support performances from the likes of Bruce Dern, Grace Zabriski and the always wonderful Harry Dean Stanton. It's kind of uncomfortable too, since, aside from half-insane bitch wife Chloe Sevigny and her amok little brats, Paxton and his family are just so damn likable. The producers have their cake and eat it too; while Stanton's "compound" is a subsistence hellhole where prepubescent girls are married off to septuagenarian men and wives of all ages are redistributed on a whim like war rations, teen boys are driven off to the streets to fend for themselves so that the old men of the religion can keep all the young women for themselves and Stanton's word is effectively the word of God, Paxton's suburban mini-compound is a relative paradise where the women - only adult ones - choose the lifestyle, children are all safe and inviolable, and the male-female dynamic is relative liberal equality. I'm just not sure what we're supposed to think about polygamy itself; whatever their intentions, the producers, by making Paxton and his family and particularly Tripplehorn, who transcends her career with the show and shows what a good actress she really is, so sympathetic, have left the show little direction but to argue for acceptance of the practice among consenting adults.

Congratulations to Matthew Tobias, the first of millions to correctly identify last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme as "snakes." (For those who asked, Stone Cold Steve Austin's wrestling nickname is "The Texas Rattlesnake" and the title of the comic ASPEN contains the word "asp.") Matthew would like to give the tip of the hat to online comics retailer Westfield Comics, which has a huge mail order system and a warehouse stocked with comics and eager beavers waiting to fill orders. Check them out. (And thanks, Josh!)

Also belated congratulations to my old pal Rob Beddard - how could I have forgotten? - who won the previous week's challenge. (No help from me, I swear.) Rob, among the world's greatest soccer fans, wants to bring attention to the official online home of Aston Villa FC, the world's greatest "football" team. (A LAUGH-IN moment: "It may be football to you, but it's soccer to me!") Click on "Click here to enter avfc.co.uk".

For those who came in late, most weeks this column posts seven disparate and apparently unrelated covers from throughout comics history that are nonetheless tied together by a fiendishly clever secret theme, which could be found on the covers themselves, in the contents of those comics, in their respective places in comics history, or some other factor. You can snoop around The Grand Comics Database for information, since that's where we get our cover shots from.

This week, however, we're going without one, because The Grand Comics Database seems to be down again. Great site, but they're down an awful lot for some reason.

Two weeks from now, the Permanent Damage 2007 officially gets under way.

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. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. 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.

Those wanting to subscribe to the WHISPER e-mail newsletter should 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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