Issue #277

Running back and forth to the Consumer Electronics Show this week. It's out of control. If you think San Diego's a madhouse... An unimaginable amount of square footage of gadgets from the most elementary microchip to $200,000 ultramodern (but, for the most part, not modern enough to be electric) cars that all but let the computers do the driving to "entire house solutions" where all security, energy and utility functions are programmed. Thousands of people trying to sell to thousands of other people - and it's a trade show. No consumers allowed, despite the name, which won't stop many from selling directly to you if you do manage to get in. But the big companies are looking for big orders from the wholesalers, distributors and retailers in attendance, while there are also rows and rows of pretty much indistinguishable (frequently Chinese or Hasidic) distributors hovering with forlorn anxiousness (and, usually, trays of candy) for the few passersby in those aisles who cast an unlucky eye their way. For the big manufacturers, it's dueling multimedia presentations and a race to see who can announce the biggest product: massive scale person-to-person advertising and the world's biggest pot poker game all in one.

The thing about the hi-tech consumer electronics business is that it's 90% bluff. While fascinating tech breakthroughs are made every day, what filters down to CES is rarely revolutionary, and often not even really real. Take Sony, for instance: a renowned company basically run by bankers these days and continuing to try to shove its products down the world's throat. (Which, frankly, is Microsoft's job.) At last year's CES they pushed hard on two new products that would change the course of the entertainment industry: the electronic book and BluRay DVD. And where are they now? Sony still has both products - I haven't been to their booth yet this year so I've no idea whether the hype's thick as ever or the products have become an afterthought like Betamax or the StorStation - but they're hardly household names. The electronic book was essentially a no-starter; despite a great pitch at CES06, it never materialized commercially or was promoted in any significant way. BluRay ran afoul of the competing HD DVD standard for high definition DVDs to go with new HDTVs, and the buying public largely swerved clear of both, partly because both more or less demanded they replace their existing DVD collections with new, more expensive DVDs. You'd think by now most manufacturers would have figured out that in entertainment media when there are two competing standards, only one of them will eventually win out - you'd think Sony would know by history says it won't be them - and they'd negotiate a single standard (it does happen) so they could all make money. (And they really should know by now that Korean and Chinese knockoffs are just waiting around the corner to undersell them anyway, regardless of standard.) "Competing standards" in a nascent field is now seen as just another way of saying "buyer beware," and there's barely anyone now who hasn't been burned on the wrong end of a standards war, so all they do is convince consumers - and retailers and distributors - to stay the hell away until things are eventually sorted out. Not that competing technologies, like LCD and plasma screen TVs, can't co-exist, but if LCD TV suddenly stop being made, yours still works until it doesn't. If BluRay goes the way of Betamax, your BluRay player will keep working until it doesn't, but you'll have to go get an HD DVD player if you want to buy any new high def DVDs, and suddenly you've got a split collection etc., and all the little hassles that, sure, it's easy enough to live with them but who wants to, and when your BluRay machine finally goes you're left with your useless pile of BluRay DVDs that you'll have to replace in the new format.

Oddly enough, consumers seem to have thought of all this, and neither BluRay nor HD DVD have gotten a particularly warm welcome. Manufacturers are now attempting to settle the issue with combo BluRay/HD DVD machines, which likely falls in the vicinity of too little too late. Of course, manufacturers on both sides of the aisle might've stood a better chance had they ironed out the kinks in their systems before presenting them as last year's hot ticket, so that machines that worked, not to mention a significant selection of software that worked with them, would have been on the market when the buzz was hot. But more and more corporations arrive at CES armed more with prototypes and hype - and monstrous price tags because the products aren't yet fit for popular consumption, but for some reason companies think this will transform them into chic must-haves despite everyone now being aware, particularly after the experience of big screen plasma TVs, that it'll likely in only a couple years similar products will better technology will be available for a tenth as much - rather than something market-ready, something software companies made popular but something software can get away with, to some extent, where hardware can't.

Certainly that has been Microsoft's philosophy for a long time. Don't get me wrong, I like Microsoft's products in general, and think they usually get a bad rap. This year at CES virtually their whole focus is the launch of their latest Windows iteration, Vista, which does look to be an improvement over XP. The question on everyone's lips at CES is how much, and Microsoft might find themselves on a bumpy road over the next year. Despite seemingly millions of marketing partners, both hardware and software, touting their products as "Vista-certified" - the main thrust of the little city the Microsoft megabooth has built around itself - the general feeling seems to be that the company's history is catching up with it. A lot of people are interested in upgrading to Vista - after the first inevitable major maintenance update is released to fix the multitude of problems that will surface with widespread use. But that's the software industry: every release of anything is a beta test.

Still, CES is a hoot, a technocircus. It's gratifying to see microchip manufacturers AMD (I've long loathed Intel) shift from a few off-the-beaten path tables at my first CES in 2001 to a big presence on the floor demonstrating a lot of very attractive uses for their microprocessors. They also have what's so far the coolest giveaway of the convention, a magnetic toy that turns into a paperweight. (Which, now that I think about it, hopefully isn't symbolic of their new chips. In case you hadn't heard, AMD's been smoking Intel in quite a few areas lately, and the microprocessor wars have really been heating up.) Giveaways are rarer, though, and many companies have shifted to contests or gone Creative's route of coming up with some game that requires visiting different areas of their booth and listening to various pitches before you can claim a "prize." Which does make more sense than leaving pens with your name and number out for people to grab on their way by, because who reads the pens they use? Though pens are hardly in short supply. T-shirts, though, once the giveaway of choice, seem to be virtually extinct.

And there are companies offering terrific market-priced new consumer items now. The coolest thing I saw there yesterday was SanDisk's new V-Mate memory card recorder, a complete videorecorder that uses flash memory sticks for storage, is small and portable enough to carry in a shirt pocket, and can be connected to any video source, computer or TV screen. The flash memory cards can also be read directly into a number of devices, including Video Ipods. $130 list, plus the price of memory. A damn fine piece of work with DVD quality, and how much you can record - it programs just like a VCR too - depends on the size of the memory stick. There are things at the show I need, but that's the item this year that I want.

Back there tomorrow, the wrapup next week.

This has apparently come to the notice of no less than Heidi Macdonald and Dirk Deppey, but I tried a few days ago to respond to it when it came up at The Engine, but that system mysteriously ate my message, so let's cover it here.

Recently writer A. David Lewis (LONE AND LEVEL SANDS) ran a column venting his outrage over ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY labeling Platinum's COWBOYS AND ALIENS the #1 selling graphic novel of the week, based on reports from Midtown Comics in New York City. Lewis cites alleged manipulations - stores selling the $4.99 graphic novel for as little as 75¢ or giving it away, Platinum paying retailers kickbacks to order the book - and takes EW to task for being swayed by a con job, right at the moment when Platinum is pushing the property to Hollywood.

I applaud Lewis' outrage, but that and his conclusion - that the entire comics market has been marred and injured by this behavior, not the least because he believes it's an awful book (I couldn't say, I haven't read it) - don't fit the crime. Not really.

First, Platinum. I've worked with Platinum, they keep threatening that it will see the light of day. That little dance has been going on for years. I keep reading where people take Platinum to task for being around this long yet not publishing anything. (At least until COWBOYS AND ALIENS.) But this is a fallacious accusation because it was never in Platinum's original game plan to become a comics publisher. It always positioned itself as a media company, with the intent of developing comics properties to market to Hollywood for media exploitation. I was never quite sure of the intended sequence, but as I originally understood it, the idea was to farm the ideas around as upcoming comics studios could snatch up before competitors saw them, at which point those properties would packaged for other comics companies to publish. Platinum tried to get a packaging deal going for years with various publishers; they now seem to have landed at Top Cow. The big flaw in Platinum's strategy- which sounded okay at the time (and they're far from the only publishers I've talked to in the last five years who've had that idea) - is that studios, while more interested in comics material than ever before, want to see published comics. Which puts Platinum in their current situation.

Even so, it's hard to see how paying retailers to carry your books or even hand them out free, if that's what Platinum really did, injures the business. Except for the quality argument, and that's in the eye of the beholder, there wouldn't appear to be much difference between that and any other promotional gimmick, like the 10¢ BATMAN ADVENTURE, or the standard syndicated TV policy of infomercials, religious programs and syndicated shows paying stations to air their broadcasts. Who does it hurt? Given what little effort generally passes for marketing and promotion in comics, it borders on admirable that a company - and Platinum's hardly wallowing in disposable income - is willing to risk bucks on what can only be called a loss leader. If the practice Lewis describes was widespread, there's no way Platinum didn't lose tons of money on the publication. Which is why it also borders on suicidal. The object of loss leaders is generally to get consumers to spend money on other product from a company, that product generating the revenue to make up the difference, but unlike, say, a Batman book, Platinum has nothing else available for readers to buy. Which means either they're expecting brisk word of mouth and reorder business - always dodgy in the comics market these days, though it does happen, but if the book's as bad as Lewis seems to think, the wide semi-forced distribution, if it existed, could just as easily kill consumer interest in further Platinum output - or they plan to make it up on the media rights. Also a dodgy proposition; regardless of interest, closing a deal in Hollywood is still hard. If it works, it was the right move; the dividing line between stupidity and genius is success.

Then there's ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. I know they don't mind having an image as the magazine of record in American pop culture, and they do a reasonably good job of covering trends and products that bob above the surface as well as a decent amount bobbing just below it, and they've spent a lot of years polishing that iconoclastic too cool for school semi-punk persona they originally cribbed from Britzines like THE FACE and NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS. Deep they ain't, usually. It's rare to see a magazine quite as certain that no one will remember what they said by the time the next issue comes out. I like the magazine, I subscribe, because it's an easy way to keep touch with a lot of subjects and the writing is usually brisk and funny because it's essentially a pop culture fanzine, and muckracking and pinpoint accuracy have never been its strong suits. As parent TIME magazine has done for decades, absent outside pressure or discovery if the legend becomes truth they're more likely than not to print the legend. It's just the nature of that beast.

So what we've got is a case of a comics publisher trying to manipulate the market, comics retailers going along with it, and a magazine reporting on the situation getting it all wrong. Maybe Lewis is right that we should all be furious about the sheer familiarity of that scenario.

I know there are people out there who've long been angry that I refer to our beloved commander-in-chief as "The Hand Puppet," and they can rest easy now. Due to attrition, scandal, ignominy and resignations, there aren't many Hands left except for Secret President Dick Cheney, and even The Dick has been keeping a pretty low profile as various vultures circle around him. From now on, the former H.P. will be referred to herein as The Ghost, not because he's a faded figure now in his own administration (he could always manage to come back from that, all it would require is a three right decisions in a row... which puts it out of the realm of probability but you never know...) but because he continues to go out of his way to keep his policies and actions invisible. That he sees himself as separate from the rest of us is underscored by two recent policies he arbitrarily decided had the force of law. The first, a "signing statement" to mitigate a mail privacy law Congress voted through, effectively dismissed the bill even as it was being signed by declaring that the President had the unilateral right to have anyone's mail opened at any time, at his discretion. (The Attorney General defended the Ghost's need to check any mail going overseas - but the bill only protected mail posted and delivered domestically, so draw your own conclusions.) If your response to that is the Administration's chant that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear, consider his other policy decision, made on the q.t. last spring, which abruptly makes Secret Service records of who visits the White House (they have to run security checks on them) the protected secret property of the White House rather than, as traditional, the Service, which does not fall under the secrecy protections the Ghost's White House has increasingly conjured over the course of his presidency. Not surprisingly, this comes out on the heels of the newly Democratic Congress reopening investigations into The Dick's Energy Task Force of 2001, and the Washington Post's revelation that Secret Service records for the first time give a clear, specific picture of who was involved, as a wide array of oil companies denied any role even while it turned out they donated specific policy recommendations to The Dick, as well as indicating no presences on the Task Force besides entrenched energy companies. Given many developments since - Enron; the energy price manipulation scandal; the Ghost drastically cutting funding for alternative energy research and production while publicly proclaiming the need to cut American dependence on foreign oil (which was itself largely a smokescreen, no pun intended, for gutting environmental regulations on energy plants; the killing of electric car production; etc. - there's quite possibly a very real conspiracy case there, the collusion of the Federal government to line the pockets of big oil and big energy at the expense of the American public. Or maybe not. Whatever the truth, the Ghost appears determined we never find out. By his own logic, if he's got nothing to hide what's he afraid of?

And he's fading rapidly in other ways. I'm not sure how, but Saddam's hanging - didn't I say there's no way it won't end badly? - and his subsequent if brief stardom on YouTube somehow managed to make The Most Evil Man Of Our Time into a sympathetic figure. Even American soldiers were giving interviews about what a pleasant, well-behaved man he was. It was clear even before the phonecam recording of the execution circulated that there was no political capital left for the Ghost from Saddam Hussein. At this point it's unlikely he could get a bounce out of the capture of Osama bin Laden. (Also something of a ghost now, apparently, as far as this administration is concerned; at least they never mention his name in public anymore.)

So long, Hand Puppet. Enter The Ghost.

ABC actually produced a couple semi-original comedies last Wednesday night: THE KNIGHTS OF PROSPERITY (9P) and IN CASE OF EMERGENCY (9:30P). In the former, a group of wage slaves, inspired by a (fake) E! Channel reality show portraying Mick Jagger as a vapid celebrity multimillionaire leading a life of unbridled consumption in his ultraswank NYC condo, form a "crime family" (the titular Knights Of Prosperity, a horrible name but we'll get to that in a moment) to rob Jagger - but only for enough to make all their dreams come true. (They declare charities to support with any excess they end up with.) Briskly and enthusiastically played by Donal Logue and a cast of unknowns, the show manages just the right doses of poignancy and slapstick as the strangest workplace comedy around; it owes more to BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET than any other caper film. And the "E! Channel" Jagger vignettes that segue to commercial breaks are a flat out stitch. It's uncertain how they can keep such an apparently narrow concept going, but big laughs can't hurt. IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, teaming familiar TV faces like Jonathan Silverman, Kelly Hu and David Arquette as former high school classmates now approaching middle age with dead-ending lives who come together in a sort of ad hoc support group. The title comes from Silverman's confession that the worst thing about a marriage breaking up is that when you have to fill in the "contact in case of emergency" line on forms you've got no one to list, but, like THE KNIGHTS OF PROSPERITY, it seems more designed to render the show unmemorable. The show makes a few missteps - I know Hu's character had to have sunk miserably from her valedictorian days, and her faking being Korean to get a job in a massage parlor was fairly funny (though I suspect Koreans might object to it), but did she have to be essentially a prostitute? - but is rescued again by frenetic pacing and some adventurous directing (for an ABC comedy, anyway) by Jon Favreau. It's not a perfect comedy by any stretch, but it does a couple very remarkable things: it makes Silverman's trademark romantic mush of a character funny and plays Arquette more for the charm he's capable of than the imbecility his characters usually project. Both shows are worth a look, while they're around.

Speaking of Arquettes, I've got Courtney Cox's new series scandal rag dramedy DIRT (Fox, 10P Tuesdays) on tape. Maybe one of these days I'll even watch it.

Not much of a week. Computer's still in the shop - they're having no more luck with it than I did but have figured out at least that the motherboard is shot - just my luck Socket 754 motherboards are vanishing like the buffalo all of a sudden but I managed to get one on order - and I have a project due on Friday. Welcome to my world. I briefly considered holding another fundraiser so I could put together a new computer system, but, y'know, it's just not justifiable. Here's hoping things will finally be back to normal next week.

You may notice several comics covers posted in the column. For those who came in late, this is what I call the Comics Cover Challenge. The covers are connected by a single secret theme - it could be a concept, a creator, a character, a historical element, pretty much anything - and the first reader who emails me the correct solution may choose a website of their choice (keep it clean!) for promotion in next's week's column. If you need any clues beyond what's here, you can search for them at the online source of our covers, The Grand Comic Book Database, and there's also a clue hidden somewhere in this column, but pay attention or it will slip by before you know it.

After effectively taking last year off, by temperament as much as opportunity, I find myself on a writing binge, so it's back to it. I don't feel like going into details here, but if you want to buy something by me or from me, head over to the Paper Movies Store and drop a few bucks. In the immortal words of Andy Taylor, mmm-mmmmm, that's good readin'. Or something like that.

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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