Issue #282

Big month for comics coming up, sort of. With GHOST RIDER and 300 set to duke it out for big screen domination, comics once again, for the umpteenth time in recent years, will stand at the forefront of American culture.

And almost no one will realize it.

This is our current limbo. Comics are probably at their greatest peak of popularity in America, perhaps the world, since World War II, and the American comics industry has shown virtually no aptitude for (or, really, interest in) capitalizing on it. One or two companies have a few timeworn franchises like Spider-Man to milk, but no one has a comprehensive business model for coping with the industry's newfound status aside from chipping away at Hollywood like starry-eyed '49ers panning for gold and praying they strike it before the food runs out. Even Dark Horse, arguably the most successful comics company ever at getting their product from comic to screen per capita, and now quite good at, say, making sure bookstores have plenty of HELLBOY material while a HELLBOY movie's making the rounds or reprinting all the SIN CITY volumes to coincide with the SIN CITY film and making quite a bit of money from it, still haven't figured out any good way of giving the rest of their line the rub off such successes. Will Oni Press be able to take advantage of a WHITEOUT film to raise the profile and sales of other books in their line? DC has never really managed to maneuver their BATMAN movie success into a way to sell comics across the board (though they managed a fairly decent facsimile during the run of the 1989 BATMAN film) and generally their coordination with other media projects like SMALLVILLE and JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED has been pathetic, as they generally cling to in-continuity versions of characters regardless of how little interest there is in them, and forsake potential for new audiences and new outlooks. There was, for instance, a moment when the cartoon versions of Supergirl and Batgirl could have jumpstarted the girls' market - certainly the interest was there - but if you went looking for them in the comics, you'd be far more likely to find the regular d-cupped, psychologically (and often physically) tormented versions doused in great dollops of the Krafft-Ebbing bathos that way too often passes for feminine characterization in comics these days.

And, sure, there are reasonable arguments as to why that is. Companies can never be sure of how successful a media project's going to be - look at Marvel's DAREDEVIL or HULK movies, which were stunningly good at killing wider audience interest in those characters - and reconfiguring characters or concepts to align with media versions is a tricky business, especially since the rank and file are almost guaranteed to howl about it. Better to bear what ills you have than flee to those you know not of and all that. On the other hand, if the job of comics companies is to sell comics, media versions are the best advertising there is, and it only makes sense that if someone really likes, say, the film version of HELLBOY they can walk into a bookstore or comics shop and pick up a HELLBOY book that at least features something identifiable as the same character or concept. Heidi MacDonald, in her The Beat recently cited how NARUTO is the best selling comic in America, and I don't think that's in small part because if you see the very popular anime on Cartoon Network and you go to pick up a NARUTO trade paperback, it's the same thing.

Yet, as Heidi mentions, publishers and fans alike turn a blind eye to NARUTO's success, as if it's something that isn't comics and has nothing to do with them. "Success," in American comics terms, has to be measured by X-MEN and that's still held, in most cases, as the ceiling. Like Iraqi pre-war intelligence, anything that doesn't fit the prevailing model is discarded as false or irrelevant. (This isn't the first time, by the way. By the late '60s, underground comics like ZAP! and FABULOUS FURRY FREAK BROTHERS - which tended to be in perpetual reprint, anticipating the current trade paperback market - were far outselling "real" comics, and the response of the comics mainstream was to look the other way, at least until Stan Lee tepidly dipped his toe into that milieu with a Spider-Man drug story; Marvel only took underground comics seriously, publishing the short-lived Denis Kitchen-edited COMIX BOOK after outside events had already killed the undergrounds.)

So, sure, if Mary Jane Watson is killed off in SPIDER-MAN 3 because Kirstin Dunst's contract is up and she doesn't want the role anymore, I don't think it would particularly hurt Marvel to eliminate her character in the comics either. But even if they didn't, the basics of Spider-Man would still be in both, and that's all you really need. Besides stories and art that won't make them drop the thing like a hot potato, I mean. But suppose someone really digs the CW's LEGION OF SUPERHEROES (Saturday 10A); what are they going to think if they buy a copy off the comics rack at Borders? It's only good business sense to have product out to hook into a high profile media version, and by "hook into" I mean something that a potential reader will be attracted to, not repelled from. To that extent, it's insane to not provide them with a comfort zone, a safe door to walk through. And once they're in that door, it's insane to not have other intermediate material they can sample, to draw them further in. If this sounds vaguely predatory, it is - but that's what selling is. It's the William Burroughs concept of junk culture, creating a need where no need exists, then feeding that need. Comics have survived way too long on the idea that need will spontaneously erupt, and it does in a small class of people, but in most cases need will only exist if it's coaxed into existence, and for comics to be truly successful again it's going to take a lot of coaxing.

But at the root of the problem - and this is shared by virtually every comics company these days, from the largest to the smallest - is the notion that the proper function of comics companies (and many comics creators now feel it's the proper function of comics creators too) is to become media empires. It isn't. The primary function of comics companies, their raison d'etre, must always be to publish and sell comics. Because they don't feel that's their job anymore, many of them do a very crappy job of it. There's a theory that the most important thing a comics company can generate is brand identification, mainly because Marvel has spent 45 years doing a pretty good job of it, but under the general umbrella of the company name there's usually no particular brand molding; it's usually a fairly haphazard grab bag of this and that. That's not branding; newcomers looking at your books or title list - and this includes established comics readers looking at a company for the first time as well as people generally unfamiliar with comics - have no idea where to turn next. Good sales means selling, and to some extent that means directing the attention of incoming markets. But nobody does much.

Marvel's got it fairly easy, since they're Marvel; they're branded enough that the general public more or less knows what they're about, whether they've seen a Marvel comic or not. The general public also thinks virtually all comics are Marvel comics, unless they're manga. They think Superman and Batman are published by Marvel, and why wouldn't they? Comics companies mostly blur together into an amorphous vanilla mess, instead of creating identity and identification, talking like they're businessmen but behaving like they're hobbyists while opportunities are lost.

You'd think by now I'd know better than to praise Republicans (or Democrats, for that matter) for anything. Last week I mentioned how Texas governor Rick Perry had bucked his archChristian base and mandated cervical cancer immunizations for all Texas schoolgirls over their objections. Turns out what was resistance to one special interest group was a gift to another, in this case Merck Pharmaceuticals, maker of the fairly expensive vaccine. Contrary to my original information, Perry isn't going all socialist on us and having the state pick up the tab, but forcing parents to pay for the treatment themselves in order to get a service - public education - the state already provides, as though cervical cancer were one of the highly contagious and potentially deadly childhood diseases most school systems around the country already require inoculation against. While cervical cancer is certainly dangerous and potentially fatal, and women probably can't get inoculated against it soon enough, it's not as far as far as I know communicable and it's not much of a risk for that age group. So all Perry's action really amounts to is forcing Texas to underwrite Merck's development costs and push the vaccine into profitability that much quicker, disguised as acting in the public interest. I should have guessed. If Perry really is only thinking of the long term benefits to Texas' women, and if he insists on the program, he ought to have the state fund it and negotiate a special low price for it. Of course, that would be too much like socialized medicine.

Over on the Democratic side of the aisle, Hillary Clinton faced the first serious obstacle in her assault on the White House. Performing for the Democratic National Committee, she was just as booed and heckled as applauded, particularly when trying to paint herself as an anti-war candidate. She isn't. Hillary's often very vocal support for the war in Iraq is a matter of public record, and at this point she can't even claim a Bobby Kennedy-style "awakening." (Kennedy originally supported the Vietnam War and anti-communist activity everywhere, then came to understand Vietnam for the massive divisive sinkhole it was.) It's only fitting that all the Congressional Democrats so determined to prove to the voting public that they weren't soft-on-terror anti-American weak sister pacifists deserve to have to eat it now. But it'll also make for an entertaining campaign season, as the major American political parties have a habit of anointing candidates - the political hacks whose "time has come" (see: John Kerry) - then trying to sell them to the voters, and there's clearly a strong faction within the party who see Hillary as their heir apparent, despite her abrasive style, her "Big Mother Is Watching" attitude and that she never met a foreign intervention she didn't like. (Cue up Iran.) Oddly, her "main competition," Illinois junior senator Barack Obama, didn't fare that much better, though his greeting was warmer, as he managed to give himself an all butter and no bread image by talking upbeat generalities but presenting no specific platforms, which tends to be the sign of a politician waiting to hear what other people want him to say, and unless he starts getting a little more overt with ideas it's hard to imagine the Democratic power structure, chomping at the bit to retake the Presidency, declaring Obama the Democratic choice in a general election; whether it's true or not, I'm sure they'll start equating an Obama run with giving up the South and thus, essentially, the White House, though I'm not sure if that becomes their thinking why they'd think a Hillary campaign is any surer a thing, unless they're depending on everyone viewing Hillary 1 as Bill 3 in drag. (Like it or not, Bill Clinton was a popular president, and The Ghost's record has only made Bill look that much more presidential in retrospect, soiled dresses aside.) Interestingly, the rank and file seems to have been galvanized former Senator/New Mexico governor Bill Richardson and former Senator/vice presidential campaigner John Edwards, both of whom could pretty much say what they wanted because they don't have to cope daily with Senate Republicans. Is Edwards tainted goods or an innocent victim of Kerry's folly? Can Richardson transform himself from an obscure governor of a depressed non-mainstream state - wait, that sounds familiar - into a national powerhouse? Or is the Hillary juggernaut, backed by an army of image consultants and reputation rehabilitators, already unstoppable - at least until November 3, 2008?

Meanwhile, with even the Defense Department's tepid (and long delayed) investigation into the manipulation of pre-war Iraq intelligence demonstrating how the material was carefully (the summary of the report falls just short of saying "criminally") cherrypicked to support the Adminstration's foregone war conclusion, and opposition to the Ghost's new "surge" mushrooming, the Administration seems to be fast-forwarding its Iran timetable. Headlines exploded across American newspapers last week of an official report claiming Iran is arming Iraqi insurgents (are they insurgents this week? I'm starting to get all the colorful euphemisms confused) and the message subtext for the American public is clear: it is not our (i.e. the Ghost's) failing in Iraq, it's all the doing of enemies from outside, and the path to victory is to destroy those enemies. This really shouldn't be a surprise to anyone paying attention; everyone from Dick Cheney's security advisor (one of the key manipulators of Iraq intelligence) to American colonels and Russian generals (one predicts the American nuking of Tehran in April) says war on Iran is imminent. And none of that there "international cooperation" rubbish this time either. Of course, at this point in the wake of Iraq there's nothing in this world as untrustworthy as an Administration intelligence report, but never mind. It's starting to look like the only real question now is how many Congressional Democrats will decide attacking Iran is deplorable but unquestionably necessary, and how many will claim they never agreed with the war when it comes back to bite them?

Notes From Under The Floorboard:

Happy Valentine's Day, another holiday nicked by the Church from pagan celebrations. In this case, the Roman Lupercal, a festival of license and debauchery (or, as my old Madison compatriot, playwright Joel Gersmann, wrote in his updating of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar - sing along now, to the tune of "Hooray For Hollywood" - "Hooray for Lupercal, that orgiastic Roman festi-val...") where romantic partners were chosen via lots, like a modern key party. (Kind of the origin of the Valentine's Day Card.) Appalled by the emphasis on physical sex (AKA eros) the Church tried to turn the day toward agape, or spiritual friendship, and it wasn't until the Middle Ages that our current notion of romantic love, or amor, that merged the two coalesced. Was there a real St. Valentine? Probably not, and he seems to have mutated in the Middle Ages into a sort of sex god, prayed to for special sexual favors like Erzulie's prayed to in voodoo, and so the day continued as a grassroots, quasi-pagan holiday tolerated but not appreciated by Christian authorities, until such time as the greeting card company turned it totally secular and sacked any religious overtones (the Greek Eros/Roman Cupid becoming hopelessly visually confused with Christian cherubs) and so we have the boon for the jewelry, greeting card, candy and prophylactic industries we know today. Have fun.

Speaking of religions, someone brought up karma in a conversation the other day - I've mentioned it before, noting that, like the eponymous hero of NBC's MY NAME IS EARL (Thursdays 8P), most Americans seem to think it's an instant gratification deal, like karma will pay you back tomorrow if you do something good or bad today (I blame it on John Lennon), when it's really one of those things that only catches up with you in your next life, so you never get to find out whether it's real or not (and, yeah, yeah, people will undoubtedly write in to tell me how karma really works and they have anecdotes to prove it, and all I have to say to that is: ain't imagination great?) - and it suddenly occurred to me that it's a religious philosophy fit only for shopkeepers, reducing all of existence to a bankbook where some things go in the credits column and others in debit. If you really need to believe in things there's absolutely no proof for, surely you can find something more interesting than that.

Cheers to BATTLESTAR GALACTICA for weathering a rocky process (SciFi Channel recently moved the show, among the top three or four fiction shows currently running on American TV, to Sundays at 10PM where its ratings continued to get battered) to get renewed for another 13 episode season. Whew! I know they were cruising very, very close to the moment when all the actors' contracts would expire, and that would have been it. Instead, now there's something to look forward to next January...

I ran out of time this week - a lot of unexpected things came up today - but it's time to get back to reviews in a big way next week. Five a day from here on in until the pile's chipped away. But that's why it's a little short this week, because it's either this or sleep and sleep's been losing for days and it refuses to lose again. On the bright side, someone told me recently that one bad night's sleep takes a week to recover from, which I figure puts me something like 127 years beyond my normal lifespan... that's new math... like I said, I need sleep...

Congratulations to first time winner Peter Royland, who beat everyone else in figuring out that last week's secret Cover Challenge Theme was professional baseball teams. (The names of eight different teams are referenced on the covers.) Peter would like everyone to visit Comic Art Fans, so don't let him down.

For those who came in late: you may notice several comics covers posted in the column. 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 I usually include a hidden clue somewhere in the column. I wasn't going to leave one this week, but there's just no good way around it. Good luck.

As usual, you can find ebooks and other books by me and recommended by me available at The Paper Movies Store. Go buy something; I need the money.

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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