Issue #290

This just isn't my week. This might be the first time I've ever completely blanked on a comics topic to write about. I tried writing a couple different things and realized after a paragraph or two that they were just rehashing other very recent columns. I scanned the news sites, comment sites like ¬°Journalista! and The Beat, boards like The Engine and MillarWorld, and, wow. Nothing. The hottest issues at the moment are some clown ripping off small cartoonists for t-shirt fodder (it seems so obviously plagiaristic that I can't believe it's not going to be settled in court, or out of it, and since he's doing it for commerce and not fine art I doubt he can invoke the Roy Lichtenstein defense), and whether David Goyer can get a Green Arrow movie off the ground. Frankly, that last one puzzles the hell out of me, since (at least as described) the idea behind the film is to barely introduce a character that few people outside comics are aware of anyway, though SMALLVILLE may have changed that a little but the CW doesn't exactly ensure the broadest viewing audience, and whose only distinguishing characteristic is his gimmick, then strip that away from him and dump him in a prison filled with a bunch of other characters almost no one ever heard of and even most comics fans don't give a rat's ass about, who also have been stripped of everything that makes them identifiable. (Face it, the one DC villains the general public are likely to have heard of are Lex Luther, the Joker and the Penguin. And maybe General Zod. Maybe.) It sounds like one monstrous, obscure fanboy in-joke, but hey. If David can convince a studio to make it, more power to him.

But that's it. That's all I've got this week. Hopefully the rest of the column will make up for it, but sometimes the well is just dry, know what I mean?

If anyone's got any questions, about anything, they want answered next week, I'm all ears.

The bit-torrenting debate rolls on:

"I know I actively don't download, because it is bad for the industry. The person who commented on how a library is just as hurtful as downloading is a fool. Libraries don't let you keep the material, it is borrowed and returned. If you want to read the same thing again, you have to go through the effort of rechecking it out, or, more likely, you go and buy a copy for yourself. When you download, it's on your computer until you think it isn't worth the hard drive space anymore. That is not the same thing.

Also, others cited titles like INVINCIBLE as a reason why they download instead of purchase. They say these titles are too hard to get a copy. Which I find an atrocious excuse. They can go through the effort to download, but they can't go through the effort to go to a legitimate vendor Web site and purchase the title or its trade? You can often get this material for a discount too when you buy it online.

These people are just making excuses for being fickle. If you are a fan of something, you support it. You go see your favorite team play, even if ticket prices are outrageous, because you are a fan. You go see the latest movie and you pay an arm and a leg for popcorn and a drink, but you do it because you want to enjoy your movie experience. If you are a comics fan, then go through the effort of buying titles. Those claiming they download a ton, but only read 10-50 percent of what they download are the worst. If you are being discriminating, than get in a shop and flip through the issue. Or go check out the digital previews CBR provides. Support the market and don't act like you are too good to be a truly discerning reader. Too many comic shops are in jeopardy of closing and too many titles are in jeopardy of being cancelled because we have these fickle fans. Hell, they don't even deserve the fan title."

I agree there are essential differences between bit-torrenting comics (as downloading comics legitimately comes more and more into vogue, we'll have to stop demonizing the word "downloading," so we may as well start now). Fan behavior, though, depends on what you're a fan of. Was talking to an old friend the other day, and I mentioned an editorial that ran in the New York Times from record shop owners closing up on Manhattan's Upper West Side, about how the record companies killed the record store. My friend spent most of the last 25 years working in record shops, loved it, but said he knew by 1995 the record store business was dead, and the record store as institution wasn't long for this world. I'm not saying the same can necessarily be said for comics shops, I'm not even remotely suggesting it would be a good thing, but, obviously, the business is rapidly changing, and how "real fans" should behave doesn't bring much to the situation. Movie fans are perhaps not to right example. Many have abandoned cinemas altogether in favor of DVDs - the "real filmgoing experience be damned - and there are very few who wouldn't be perfectly happy to walk into a theater to watch a film free if they thought they could. I have it from reliable sources that multiplexes have made it very easy for kids and teenagers to see whatever they want, by buying a ticket for whatever they can get into then heading for whatever film they really want to see, regardless of rating. And these are kids who really like movies. It's no accident that one of the Motion Picture Association of America's biggest concerns is the ease with which movies can now be bit-torrented. At any rate, as I mentioned to Dan Slott (which started this whole discussion), lecturing isn't going to do much good at this point. It's more a matter now of trying to figure out where the currents of history are rolling to, and trying to get ahead of them for a change. Which might be too tall an order for the comics industry.

"I'd love to switch to all digital. I need the space. And I can buy a 500 GB hard drive for the same price I have to pay for replacement comic bags (boards and boxes not included).

But digital comics must be cheaper than print. I won't pay $3 for 22 pages plus ads for a digital file. I refuse to cut out all those other people's jobs (printers, distributors, dealers, shippers, etc) to pay the same for less. I don't know what Marvel/DC's cut of the cover price is these days, but I'd gladly switch to digital if I have to pay no more than that amount for each issue. And what's more, I would certainly be lured into buying even more titles, increasing their profits and their number of titles. But if publishers used digital formats to simply claim the difference as profits for themselves, I would not support it in the least.

I don't understand why independent publishers aren't all over this already. Only a teensy fraction of Diamond's PREVIEWS ever makes it to the racks, mostly because of low orders (for content that is supposedly already created). Digital files would let them avoid those hard-to-reach minimums.

And it's not like the files are hard to make."

Thing is, the vast bulk of releases in PREVIEWS never make it to bit-torrent either. So far, Marvel and DC drive the bit-torrent market the way they drive the comics market, which is also something to take into consideration. It may be mainly Marvel and DC losing money due to bit-torrenting, but it's mainly them getting the rub from it too. Is this a case of the more things change the more they stay the same?

"To the torrenters who like to make excuses or explain away their habits: Here is the plain and simple truth. If you don't buy something it won't be around for you to read, listen to, or experience any more. That's it. That's all. You don't buy it means it won't exist. If you're trying to boycott comics for some reason then fine, but if you genuinely enjoy comics then go to your local shop and start a pull list. If you don't like that shop go to another one. In business money is your voice. If you give it to them they will continue to provide services or product, you deprive them of it and they will cease to supply said services or product.

And what if Marvel and DC did let you download comics? How many friends would you share that with? Then there's the presumed losses thing again. Let's say you share your book with 3 friends. Then that's 50 cents per friend equaling $1.50 they just lost. Multiply that times 100,000 downloads equaling $50,000. Now factor in the presumed losses of $1.50 times the three friends per download that's $150,000 they just lost. So they'd have to make it $2 a download for presumed losses due to sharing of your digital media (which would take virtually no effort to duplicate as opposed to scanning an entire book), meaning that due to people thinking it's okay to download stuff for free prices would stay virtually the same. I like a book in my hand. I like supporting the artists and writers. I like to think comics will be around another 50 years. I hope all of that makes sense."

This is actually a place the companies can capitalize on bit-torrenting: selling advertising. If you've ever taken a magazine survey, one question they always ask is: how many other people read your copy of this magazine? Why? Because they count those people in their ad statistics, and extrapolate statistically from your answer how many other people who don't buy the magazine read it. If, say, TIME's survey reveals that their 100,000 readership shares the magazine with three people on average, they'll figure their ad rates for 300,000 readers because what they're really selling is exposures to each ad, not number of copies sold. Similarly, if three people buy a copy of, oh, THUNDERBOLTS, scan them, and distribute them via bit-torrent to 100,000 other people for free (does anyone have any idea what average bit-torrent download statistics are?), that's 300,000 exposure per ad Marvel could claim on those three copies, theoretically. (I'm sure there are other governing factors I'm not aware of, but maybe not.) This ad rate thing is the same reason that magazines offer free or very cut rate subscriptions, particularly specialty magazines for targeted audiences. (I keep getting free subscriptions whether I return the offer cards or not, most of these magazines are so eager to get their "subscription" and ad rate levels up.)

At any rate, I wouldn't worry too much about comics being here in fifty years. DC or Marvel might not be, but that's not the same thing... But there are other ways to capitalize on things other than recommended sales price. Companies just have to figure out what they are."

"The publishers can be pretty confident that the sharing will occur if they make digital copies available for a download even at a nominal fee (.25 per d/l looks like a good number). But they can also have a high level of confidence that people will d/l their copy, at least initially, legally due to the lag time from "publication" to torrent.Of course this will change with the digital copies becoming available. How can the publishers just not apply the same income models that the music publishers employed when deciding to allow downloads of their music for a fee? Revenue went down with Napster (and the like) revenue increased with iTunes (and the like). Maybe not to pre-Napster levels but clearly enough to turn the noise from daily headlines to background noise. I'm no accountant or businessperson but seems like the same trend. FYI, I do download for reading and am glad to not have paid for books like CIVIL WAR and WONDER WOMAN, which were not very good as products but will be referenced later in (perhaps) books worth going to the LCS."

Every time anyone uses the acronym LCS I always think at first they're talking about the Mormons. Technically, Napster probably didn't damage record company profits as much as record companies did, since they basically made the decision to end the single at the same moment they were heavily pushing acts like Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys that were singles, not album, acts. The first great draw of Napster wasn't that you could get your music free - surveys and studies have indicated that Napster increased sales for products the music industry didn't support, by exposing the material to audiences who wouldn't have heard it otherwise who then bought physical - but that you could get that one song you wanted without having to fork over for a dozen other songs you didn't want. Which, now that I think about it, might be something of a parallel to the current "big crossover" projects DC and Marvel are currently obsessed with. At any rate, the record companies demonstrated the flaw in trying to dictate what your customers will buy instead of listening to what they want to buy. It might also be noted that Napster and the other early swapping sites/systems helped give rise to the iPod, which then gave rise to iTunes. So there is sort of a continuum from illegitimate to semi-legitimate in play, even though there's still a lot of illegitimate out there for reasons we'll cover in a second.

Meanwhile, Stephen Gerding compares the new Top Cow/IGN comics download service (with digital rights management) to Pullbox (a similar, multi-publisher service without digital rights management restrictions). It's interesting. And Philosophical Musings took on my couple columns old comments about bit-torrenting comics, which I took the liberty of briefly responding to there, so no real point in repeating them here.

It's interesting that in the wake of Apple's abandonment of Digital Rights Management Microsoft has also announced plans to drop DRM for its music service, even while its new Windows Vista operating system turns out to be a DRM nightmare far more geared toward the needs of media corporations than toward usefulness to Microsoft's customers, as Douglas Rushkoff recently pointed out. So what's the problem with DRM, anyway? It's just companies protecting their intellectual property rights, right? It's no secret within the music industry that DRM is strangling its downloadable music business, previously predicted to be a landslide goldmine, in the cradle, because it doesn't work well and customers don't want it, but they cling to it nonethless. While the RIAA touts the official propaganda that it's merely to protect their interests, if you look at their public statements, their DRM policies and the laws the record industry lobbies for, it's not hard to see the long range purpose of DRM, even if record companies haven't themselves worked it out that far yet (and they might have): in the perfect DRM world you wouldn't even buy music, you'd pay per listen, like radio stations pay per airing. I know that sounds like paranoia, but I guarantee that, as record company profits continue to dwindle mostly due to their own stupidity, they will trying to maximize their profits by resorting to pay-for-play. So you won't buy a David Bowie track for $.99, you'll pay a buck for ten listens. Or four listens, however much they decide a listen is worth. Once it's established that the media company is the permanent owner of the distributed work, and the RIAA is already pushing legislation along those lines, every other media concern will try to jump on the same bandwagon, and issues of what you get when you pay for what you buy will be moot, because you'll never "buy" anything again. You'll just spend. If anyone needs their media fix so badly they'll go along with it, and I bet the RIAA is betting that you do.

And just when nothing much besides business as usual was going on in politics, another budding scandal for the White House. If that's not also business as usual now. Seems, as reported recently in the Los Angeles Times, back around the time the current administration came into office, the Republican National Committee decided an easy way to circumvent rules against White House staffers using government equipment to serve purely partisan political agendas by providing the staffers with privately bought laptops and linking them via a private email system, so they could essentially work for both the White House and the RNC (to promote Republican candidates) at the same time without stepping (much) on government regulations. All things considered, it's not the dumbest idea I've ever heard, and any loophole in a storm, right? (Presumably, their DNC-related activities wouldn't take place while they were punched in on the taxpayers' clock.) It's indicative of the current White House that the staffers, going quite far up the ladder (funny how Karl Rove's name keeps coming up in these things), couldn't even get that vaguely shady but vaguely legal scheme right. Seems they swung the other way, using the private system for government correspondence, which is equally against the rules. Why? Because White House records, including all correspondence and emails, are supposed to be meticulously recorded, kept and catalogued, and the double system basically gave them a back door through which to handle things they didn't want public accountability for, like an accountant keeping one set of books to show auditors and another with the real facts and figures in them. Sloppiness? Maybe. But this administration's obsession with keeping its machinations away from public or Congressional scrutiny, along with indications that staffers used the system to discuss, possibly with the DNC and certainly with the DoJ, the Justice Dept.'s recent bout of prosecutor firings (one prosecutor was flat out told the reason he was being fired was to give a boost to the political ambitions of the Republican who would replace him) and to communicate with convicted bribemaster, notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and his agents. (It was during the recent prosecutor flap that Congress found out about the e-mail system, and, perhaps not coincidentally, one of the prosecutors replaced was the one from San Diego who successfully tried formerly powerful House Republican Randy Cunningham, whose connections to Abramoff were among key evidence against him.) The White House immediately trotted out their favorite excuse - "Well, Clinton did it!" but whether any ancillary Clinton administration email system was also used to route information about official government business to party HQ or had messages from Abramoff cohorts warning them to keep their communications with Abramoff off official White House records is unknown. Whatever scandal may result from exposure of the alternate e-mail system, the biggest potential hazard for the Administration is the likelihood the White House will be unable to expand claims of presidential privilege to cover politically sensitive information in the messages, it being basically an illegitimate system.

Meanwhile, former professional canker sore and aspiring Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich demonstrated his qualifications for the job by joining the chorus calling for Atty. General Alberto Gonzales' resignation over the prosecutor flap. Newt's reasoning? If Gonzales throws himself on his sword, further investigation of Administration activities will cease. Yeah, that's the kind of thinking we want in the Oval Office. (Not to mention that at this point it probably wouldn't work. There's too much blood in the water.) And odious dead Reagan powerhouse Jeane Kirkpatrick left a rotten little Easter egg for the Ghost in her forthcoming posthumous book where she outlined not only what a thorough botch job the Iraq invasion was, but what a total lack of thinking went into the whole premise for the war. I guess she, like former Ghost strategist Matthew Dowd, who oversaw the 2004 reelection campaign, qualifies as the real loyal opposition, since both now reveal they oppose the war but loyally kept their misgivings to themselves.

If you take Pew surveys seriously, the main result of the Iraq War has been to turn Red America blue, with a (mild) shift away from Conservative viewpoints to Liberal ones as the ideological and ethical bankruptcy of the Republican Party sinks in. It's interesting, but I'm not convinced it's genuinely indicative of anything, and continuing to frame the argument as liberal vs. conservative plays into the tag team political game that has consistently broadened the cynicism about the political process that afflicts many American citizens. There's no doubt that, at the moment, "conservatism" (or, at least, the "conservatism" of the neo-cons, whose main accomplishment seems to have been to appropriate the "tax and spend" tag assigned to liberal Democrats for so long and "improve" it to "spend and spend") appears to have pretty soundly failed, but that doesn't mean a return to classic liberalism will be of much use, since that, too, can be said to have already failed. So framing the argument as "liberal vs. conservative" is simply propping up the return of "conservatism" on down the road. More interesting about the survey than any perceived split along liberal and conservative lines are the splits along lines of class, economics and age. (For instance, working class Democrats, whatever their other views, tend to see Wal-Mart as a positive in American life, while white collar Democrats tend to view it as a negative.) What's needed now isn't a preening pretension that because one approach has failed - and there are plenty out there who believe that conservatism hasn't failed so much as been misapplied or appropriated - its proclaimed "polar opposite" will succeed (in theory, liberalism and conservatism may seem radical variants, but in practice liberals and conservatism don't behave or even vote all that differently, in many cases) but a new bipartisan - multipartisan - discussion of what we really want this country to be and to stand for: a discussion not rigged, as usual, by propaganda. Periodically the White House (whoever's in it) and Congress, and even the Democrats and Republicans, make a lot of noise about an end to "politics as usual." If there was ever a time to be serious about that, this is it.

Sorry about the delay. Stomach problems. Nothing serious, just enough to put me down for the day.

Those in the easterly portions of North America should take the time this week to seek out Bryan Talbot, currently doing a short book tour for his new breakthrough graphic novel, ALICE IN SUNDERLAND:

April 12: 5:30-7:30P at Cards Comics & Collectibles, Inc. (100A Chartley Drive., Reisterstown, MD, 21136; 410-526-7410)

April 13: 6-8P at Jim Hanley's Universe (4 W 33rd St, New York, NY 10001; 212-268-7088)

April 14: 11-11:55A at the Lewis Carroll Society of North America (Butler Library, Room 203, Columbia University, NYC). Bryan's presentation and book signing are open to the public.

April 16th 6P at The Merril Collection (Lillian H Smith Library, 239 College Street, Toronto; 416 -533 9168)

Longtime readers may remember Bryan as the talent behind the equally breakthrough not to mention extremely influential (would we have had Alan Moore without it?) ADVENTURES OF LUTHER ARKWRIGHT. ALICE is something new among graphic novels: fiction, meditation, biography, literary criticism seamlessly blended into an inventive work of cultural imagination. If I were still living out East I'd make a point of seeing Bryan (who's quite entertaining in his own right) at least once. If you are, so should you.

The Microsoft Windows Vista brouhaha has me (and maybe thousands of others) now considering Linux as an operating system again the next time I build or buy a computer, if XP is no longer being sold. (I don't have many problems with XP. And, yes, I know, I know, Macintosh... but Steve Jobs doesn't really need my money, does he?) While there's no shortage of "mainstream usage" software like Open Office and Firefox for Linux, its main flaw, near as I can tell, is the continued unavailability of device drivers - there are no Linux-based drivers for my network devices, for instance, and I'm not keen to shell out for a whole new system - and specialty software. Is there a decent screenwriting program, something on par with Final Draft, for Linux? As Microsoft's OS business sells itself to Digital Rights Management, Linux looks more and more attractive, so this would be the right time for software innovators to step up. Is it necessary to open-source all programs written for the OS?

What a mess the current season of 24 (Fox, 9P Mondays) has turned out to be, seeming more every week like they're improvising as they're shooting. But at least Jack Bauer got one great action scene this past Monday, as the pocket nuke situation came to a head. (Too bad the scene depended on the gang that couldn't shoot straight, but you can't have everything.) I had to reflect for a few minutes before realizing they did set up the latest incredible twist. Far less out of the blue was the season premiere of THE SHIELD (FX, Tuesday 10P), which was its usual hardboiled morally ambiguous self (by this point you either love it or you hate it, and that's not going to change) but was oddly off for the show, partly because it was mostly setup for the coming season, and partly because over the hiatus Forest Whitaker's previously fascinating Internal Affairs detective character went crazy off the rails, into behavior so clearly designed to destroy him it's startling the writers chose a direction so ludicrously obvious for a change. Hopefully the show will get back on track once Whitaker exits, though I'm sorry to see him go. The best part of the show, though, remains the writing, punctuated this episode by the show's MVP, actor Walton Goggins, whose dialogue was full of "the audience knows that the characters don't" double entendres. Over on HBO, the long-pending final few episodes of THE SOPRANOS (9P Sundays) launched with a pastoral bottle story whose main effect was to convince us, if we had any doubts, that, man, these characters really do deserve whatever's coming to them now that there's no reason to hold anything back. (I still suspect that either Tony will turn state's evidence by the finale, or the show will end on business as usual with Tony Soprano momentarily victorious over all comers but still trapped in a life he both loves and hates. Just in case someone decides they want to do a theatrical film.) But the real action thriller of the week was the season debut of THE ULTIMATE FIGHTER (Spike, 10P Thursday), which introduced a new crop of would-be UFC combatants, led by two rival coaches who spent the first episode trying to psych each other out. Lending the show extra credibility was last season's winner, Matt Serra, competing for the UFC welterweight title against champion Georges St. Pierre on a pay-per-view Saturday night. Serra spent much of his UF season co-coaching his teammates to victory after victory, but there wasn't one single person I ran across who bet Serra would last two rounds against St. Pierre. Turned out the fight didn't even last one round, as Serra came out swinging (his forte is mat wrestling, so nobody was expecting it) and seemingly effortlessly pounded St. Pierre into the mat. One of those short, amazing matches, not so much because of any technical expertise but because it was like you were staring into the Bizarro universe, and if you'd bet on Serra there's a decent chance you'd be rich today. Anyway, TV has suddenly gotten more interesting, at least for a few weeks.

Speaking of mixed martial arts, the fledgling IFL organization, now with TV on the MyNetwork stations on Monday nights, comes off several crappy shows that played up pretty much every worst image anyone ever had about the sport, with its debt racking up into the millions and its stock price, launched ridiculously high a month or so ago, plummeting. No idea what the ratings for the show are. I've only watched the show once, but while the concept is kind of intriguing - teams of up and coming fighters led by famous coaches, engaged in tournaments - the presentation is bland and the rules as explained border on incomprehensible. (It doesn't help that the audiences they attract appear to boo anything that doesn't involve punching, and there's tons more to MMA than that; it isn't even the most interesting aspect.) Why should any of this matter to comics fans? One of the owners of IFL is Gareb Shamus, impresario of WIZARD... which, now that I think about it, probably means it shouldn't... Hopefully, Gareb didn't sink too much money into it, because sink is beginning to look like the operative term...

Regarding the week before last's Comics Cover Challenge, winner Ben Avery would like to promote Feed My Starving Children, "It's one of the better "feeding the hungry" organizations I've come across, as they focus on getting food to the people who need it first and foremost, 96% of the money donated to them goes to actual production and delivery. Only 4% goes to overhead costs. (Most of their work is done byvolunteers.)" Certainly a worthy cause. Check it out.

And congratulations to Daniel Fish, the first to identify last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme as robots. (A lot of right guesses on this one, but only one winner, sorry.) Daniel would like to promote his own website, Lost And Found, which is chock full of entertainment. Don't miss it.

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. There's a big clue hidden in this week's column. 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. Then again, who doesn't?

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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