Issue #291

Yessiree, that Batman sure was kinder and gentler in the 1950s:

(From DETECTIVE COMICS 163, September 1950)

As a rule, I don't use the column to showcase my own work, but it's been my observation that there are only two kinds of people in this world: them what want to make the rules (which includes most of those who follow the rules, who'd be the ones to make them if they could) and them what want to break the rules. Me, I've always fallen toward the rulebreaker side of the equation, though I've never felt doctrinaire about it, but it rarely pays to be doctrinaire about anything. Doctrinairity is just another way of destroying your ability to adapt to shifting circumstances.

Especially where the greatest crime comic of the decade is involved. So here's a sneak preview of TWO GUNS, coming very soon to a comics shop near you courtesy of Boom! Studios: a simple story about a couple low-rent criminals who decide to rob a Mob bank. But what neither of them knows is that they're both undercover cops, and the bank is really a laundry for something a lot scarier than the Mob. You can read it as a gritty noir, you can read it as a dark comedy, but read the mini-series now because, honest, we're not planning a trade paperback edition anytime soon. To wit:

Art by Mat Santoluoco and covers by Rafael Albuquerque. Check out the printed form for hi-res versions of these pages. By the way, I notice Warren Ellis, promoting his wild new series DOKTOR SLEEPLESS, coming soon from Avatar, is answering via e-mail three questions about the comic this week from any comics website if they contact him via email. (I'm sure Warren gets enough spam already so I won't list his email address, but those who want it can find it easily enough by bopping over to The Engine and rooting around.) Where I sit, that's a challenge, so any comics website can ask me any number of questions about TWO GUNS just by dropping me an e-mail.

I'm sure there are those who think it's cheesy for me to abuse my god-given freedom as an Internet columnist by opaquely promoting my new comic, but the cold hard fact is that it's bloody hard to promote an independent comic these days, so any port in a storm. I'm always getting e-mail from people asking why I don't write more comics these days. Question is: do they really mean why don't I write more Marvel and DC comics? Now's your chance to prove you don't.

As a kissoff to the comics bit-torrenting discussion, at least on my end, I took a tour of the major bit-torrent sites over the last week to see what they're offering. I'm not sure whether it's good news for independent comics in America.

Looking at the major torrent sites, it's hard not to be impressed with the wide variety of back material there. I was surprised to find my old TWILIGHT MAN series from First Comics very recently bundled there. (I'll make an offer to whoever uploaded the scans there: send me a set - it'll save me the trouble of scanning them myself - and I'll send you scans of the covers. Drop me a line for sending instructions before you send, though. The size of the thing will incapacitate my normal mailboxes.) Honestly, I doubt many publishers are concerned with the obscure back archive material making the rounds. It's the 21st century equivalent of quarter boxes, and there's more than one series that gained more attention and popularity via the quarter box than it had when originally published. I imagine back issue dealers would be more peeved about them. But every week there are mass torrents of current releases. And the vast majority of what's represented there are Marvel and DC comics.

Which makes sense. It follows that scanners scan what they buy and, unless they're retailers out to undercut their own market, they're buying what most everyone who buys comics buys: Marvel and DC comics. There are two ways for independent comics companies to interpret this.

Like everyone else, the torrenters serve an audience. If what they're mainly posting are Marvel and DC comics, it's not much of a leap to assume that's what those who download the torrents are most interested in. (Statistics on what individual comics within the mass torrents - you can select what comics within you want, or you can grab the whole thing - would be illuminating on a number of levels.) Which firms up the theory that torrents basically exist to feed "mainstream" comics fans.

Whether that's good news or bad news depends on your perspective. One hypothesis is that a book received via torrent is a book the recipient no longer needs to spend money on. In theory this should be good news for smaller publishers, as it means comics fans have more money in their pockets to spend on Marvel and DC, whose financial dominion over the American comics market would be correspondingly weakened. But this only works if torrent readers spend their comics budgets on independent comics rather than pocket the difference. If sales charts indicate anything, that's not the case. Sales of Marvel and DC comics have increased as torrenting has become more popular. No direct correlation can be drawn - it's possible DC and Marvel would be far more profitable if torrents were shut down and those downloading torrents were forced to buy those comics again, but that assumes they would - but it at least suggests that torrents increase popularity. (As I mentioned in an earlier column, independent data suggests this was also the case for the music industry, despite their determination to shut down music torrents.)

We could assume the absence of many independent comics from the torrent lists is a sign of solidarity - comics pirates declaring hands off the more vulnerable little guy and freeing up customer budgets for little guy consumption - but a likelier explanation is that those comics aren't being torrented because torrenters aren't buying them in the first place.

Which isn't such good news. Not for a healthy independent comics business, and it hasn't been all that healthy in a very long time now. For years I've been hearing the myth repeated that the Internet would somehow make all the difference for independent and creator-owned comics, that it would even the playing field and give small players an equal footing with majors. I don't see it happening. Money shouldn't really be a factor; you can put together a very attractive, modern website for a very modest outlay, and a lot of financial sites provide free order processing tools. But there's still the issue of getting eyes to your website. A lot of people seem to think that putting up a website is marketing. It's only scratching the surface. Using a website to market comics doesn't make a lot of sense if only the comics are marketing the website.

It can be taken as not bad news that mainly DC and Marvel are "bearing the brunt" of torrenting, but it's not exactly good news either. What it means is that Marvel and DC are colonizing alternative methods of getting material out there - even if it's not their choice - just as they successfully colonized the direct market. Even if independent comics see no value in torrenting as promotion for their material, that, and the rest of the Internet, seem now to be not vast untapped possibilities but doors that are closing on them very rapidly. Bit torrents, if nothing else, are indicative of popularity, and that means that on that front too independent comics are losing, and will lose if independent publishers don't get on the stick and do something about it. It's one thing if product isn't considered good enough to buy, but real trouble if it's considered not good enough to steal.

The Don Imus fiasco was like an extended Groundhog's Day, as the Big Mother Underground took the opportunity to poke its head up out of its burrow to see how much the sun was shining on its agenda. There's not much doubt that, at least on the radio, Imus is a flaming lout, a pretty standard radio DJ who, however poorly he chose his words, managed to weather a hell of a lot of format changes. A local star in NYC when radio was all rock songs and goofy interludes, he survived to become a king of the shock jocks when Howard Stern cracked his market and later the entirety of America, before shifting to "serious" (if basically conservative) political commentary when he perceived his by then interstate audience was more interested in such things. Not that he ever abandoned the shock jock label altogether, but he was clearly out to become known as at least as serious a political commentator as Rush Limbaugh. In other words, he had a finely tuned sense of remaking himself into whatever he figured would keep him on the radio, but his sensibilities jumped the track when he decided to get blustery about the Rutgers women's basketball team, which had worked their way up the ranks to the national finals against Tennessee. What's truly weird is that, if you look at the context, Imus clearly thought he was paying them a compliment by heaping racial and sexual stereotypes on these women who had done nothing to anyone except try to the best of their abilities to win basketball games.

And the country erupted.

Not that Imus didn't deserve what he got. (The kids who benefited from his cancer charity didn't, though, and even though he's no longer working, they'll suffer from this a lot more than he will, since the charity will likely go by the wayside but there'll always be someone who'll sooner or later be aiming at the indignant Neanderthal market who'll figure Imus' notoriety is good for business, and he'll be back on the air.) Free speech issue? Maybe. But while I'm generally pretty lackadaisical about the harmfulness of words - they're my business, and not something any of us should be afraid of - let's face it: there are words whose only function is to insult and offend. It's not like all of us don't know what they are. (If you really don't know what Imus said, check here. I don't feel any need to repeat it, but I notice that the day Imus got thrown off the radio all the TV network news programs gloried in repeating his statement over and over while simultaneously, and under the circumstances disingenuously, rebroadcasting his words at every possible opportunity. But network news has depended on the shock jock approach for more than a decade too.) It's not clear whether Imus thought he was being ironically funny or accurately descriptive, but when you use words whose entirely raison d'etre is to cause offense, it's two-faced to be all mopey and defensive when offense is taken. It's not like I don't know what those words are, or you don't, or Imus doesn't. We all know.

The next few days were a blur of Imus' fellow shock jocks railing about his First Amendment rights, clearly concerned about possible trends toward calling shock jocks on the carpet for their stupidity. But I don't see anyone going after, say, Opie & Anthony for their beerbelly "we're white guys, so shut up" blather. No, as the Imus fiasco heated up, America's ethical watchdogs announced it opened the doors for them to go after the real cancer in American society:

Rap music.

This is where politics are at now. In this corner, you've got right wingers screeching "political correctness!" every time someone suggests that, oh, maybe Arnold Schwarzenegger ought to think a little longer before badmouthing immigrants or pointing out that women might get a bit offended at being dismissed as baby machines who should learn to do what their husbands tell them, so that basically we'll just stop paying any attention to anyone who might have a reasonable complaint about unfair treatment at the hands of the power structure; dismiss 'em all as whiney crackpots! In that corner, you've got the Big Mother Underground, killjoy "liberals" just dying for the chance to fix all humanity's problems by seizing control of culture and language. Because, you know, everything would just be hunky-dory if we all just thought the same way. If the two "sides" were duking it out with each other, that'd be one thing, but they're not. They're tag-teaming, consciously or otherwise. In the middle is us, and when one side starts seems unreasonably loony, the other side pops back up to say "See? We told you we were the reasonable ones." It's like they take turns trying to erode different civil rights.

Not that this is an unusual arrangement between seemingly opposing sides in cultural debates. I explained to a friend the other day how porn producers and the Christian Right have an obvious dependency on each other, whether they cop to it or not. The porn industry is in a funny situation right now; there's just not much left in American society that's really taboo, and what is still taboo is flat out illegal. Yet porn, more than any other industry, is dependent on the veneer of novelty and illicitness while pretty much restricted to a tiny array of sex acts to work with. The bigger porn companies have tried to cope by presenting an air of vaguely sleezy glamour (cf. Jenna Jameson) and the dichotomous appearance of now being in the mainstream of American culture while still claiming to deliver "edgy" new thrills (but not too!), while smaller companies have either targeted niche markets or gone perversely vulgar in the (not unreasonable) belief that their core customers want to see what they'd never in a million years dream of doing in real life. But there isn't a porn film made that bears up to re-watching (and they not only know it, they depend on it, and the only real novelty is the constantly shifting set of warm bodies available for filming. The content itself is about as "new" as the 1850s, and it says something about our culture that advertising, TV shows and music videos try to make themselves seem as "edgy" as porn. (Don't CBS crime dramas in particular seem to have stripper or porn star storylines every other week?)

The Christian Right? The Christian Right's function in this little dance is to keep talking about how threatening and taboo pornography is. In fact, a good part of their existence revolves around keeping alive the notion that any kind of sexual content (at least outside of marriage and not for the explicit purpose of making babies) is taboo, and we are an immoral, decadent and godless society because Society At Large condones such things. Yet you see all the time where the two "sides" end up working hand in hand. Recently both worked together to kill (again) the introduction of .xxx Internet domains for porn sites. The porn industry doesn't want them; by saying that all porn sites must have an .xxx domain, it effectively relegates them to an Internet red light district. Not that pornography's recurring customers are unlikely to make the transition; what concerns the porn industry is how .xxx will make it much more unlikely that new customers will stumble upon them, plus making it much less likely that existing customers will call in from any computers that might leave unseemly traces of their Internet destinations. (It's much easier for a .com extension to get lost in lists than a .xxx extension, especially when it's your boss who's checking the list.) The Christian Right also railed against the proposed domain extension, on the premise that it would make finding porn on the Internet too easy.

Which is hilarious, considering how easy it is to find porn on the Internet now, and how a separate extension would make much-touted parental filtering of such sites much easier. But the Christian Right doesn't want pornography filtered, they want it gone, and that unyielding demand, backed by protestations of righteousness, helps the porn industry maintain the illusion that it promises truly exotic thrills (and, thus, keeps pulling in money) while the continued availability of porn helps the Christian Right project the impression of amok immorality in society that keeps its followers appalled and keeps those donations coming in. There's no handshake deal, but that doesn't mean the supposed antipathy between the Christian Right and the porn industry isn't mutually profitable.

Likewise the apparently antagonistic right wing and the Big Mother Underground. Monday's shootings at Virginia University brought interesting responses from both groups. Representing the right was presidential hopeful and now inveterate hoof devourer Senator John McCain, who promised the shootings would only strengthen his determination to protect the sanctity of the Second Amendment and make sure only the bad people couldn't get guns. (Does he mean Koreans?) The Big Mother Underground, in the meantime, proposed that the shootings were a signal to cultural war...

... against violent videogames and TV shows.

Without their bogus Point/Counterpoint routine, how seriously would Americans take either of them?

Notes From Under The Floorboard:

Out of curiosity, if there are any independent comics companies (print publisher or Internet-only publishers) who are making major inroads via The Internet, send details so we can tell your story.

Another look at the DRM situation as regards the record companies: an excellent, short video interview with legendary guitarist Dick Dale spelling out exactly how the music industry in America works, and what to do about it. And it's not terrible advice for budding comics talent, either, though don't get the wrong idea: what Dale talks about is a lot of work.

I haven't decided whether I like DRIVE (Fox, 8P Mondays) yet - so far the writing's kind of fun and I generally like the actors, but every time they get to the mystery road race (which is more AMAZING RACE than DEATH RACE 2000, with contestants solving clues about their next destination and performing odd stunts when they get there) I just want to laugh - but I want a copy of the inevitable soundtrack album. Meanwhile, finally caught last year's much touted CHILDREN OF MEN, which features good acting, interesting sets and photography, and some of the most irrational storylines and chilliest directing I've run across in a long, long time. That insufferable snob P.D. James originated the story explains a lot, but the stimulus - women stop being able to conceive children - doesn't at all compute into the response - within 18 years political culture has gone completely fascist and society has decayed, literally and figuratively, to rubble in the streets. Director Alfonso Cuaron sure wants his viewers to think about his message (which seems to be: if people are shooting at you, hold a crying baby) because he does everything in his power to keep them emotionally uninvolved with the action. The only moments of life in the film belong to Michael Caine as a cynical ex-hippie cheerfully riding out his reclusive final years; it's one of his best performances ever. All the acting is pretty good, and it's full of Nativity allusions just in case you don't get how meaningful it's claiming to be, but the film's ultimately as barren as any futuristic womb it postulates.

A couple quick letters:

"Just wondered if you're familiar with Phil and Kaja Foglio's GIRL GENIUS line of comics. In my opinion a great, great strip for (almost) all ages. They elected to post their books online, a page at a time, three days a week. It's addictive. Now that I'm caught up on the stories I can't wait for the next page - kind of what it must have been like to read TERRY AND THE PIRATES in the daily papers.

Based on the Foglio's representations on the Girl Genius website, posting these with free access is the best thing for revenue and profitability they could have done. Might be worth touching base with them to get their take on digital access to their work. At the very least, you'll get to read a terrific adventure strip."

Nope, haven't seen it, but thanks for the tip.

"I just started getting back into the comic book scene. I was an avid GI JOE reader back in the 80s, when I was still a kid, and into high school I was very much in to Spider-Man and the X-Men (in the 1990s... when, evidently, comics got horrible... I wasn't aware of that fact until I was "told" by a number of websites I visit... all I know is I always enjoyed comics back then). I stopped reading in college and law school, but, my brother-in-law has a bunch of trades that I've picked up and I started buying up trades like I never could when I made $50 a week in high school. I really enjoyed the Marvel Ultimate line.

Anyway, I've been enjoying your articles on CBR and had two questions:

(1) Where can I get old copies of comic books? I would like to reread some of the old G.I. Joe comics. I would also like to read some of the classic X-Men, Fantastic Four, Spiderman, Batman, etc. comics. I've been up and down Amazon looking for trades, but they are either out of print or prohibitively expensive.

(2) Are there any superhero stories in non-comic book, print format? I know that if there's a good-selling event (like Knightfall), there is a book printed. I'm thinking of more original stories that capture that good old superhero feel, but come in non-comic format. They don't have to be related to a current comics superhero. Just something in the superhero-vein. In my very limited spare time, I write "comics" in narrative format because I have no artistic capabilities. In short, I've developed an enormous amount of characters with back stories (the easy part for me), and I have begun writing. I was wondering if the non-comic was a well-traveled avenue for superhero stories."

1) Back issues are all over the place. Many comics retailers have quarter boxes. Thousands of comics sell on Ebay. If you do a search for back issue comics on any search engines, I'm sure dozens of sources will list. 2) I wouldn't say prose superhero stories are a raging concern, but they're certainly more common than a decade ago, and some fairly major writers have had a fling at them. I know some book publisher are theoretically interested in such things, but they'd likely be a hard sell for an unknown. If you want to pursue them, you might want to "self-publish" on your own website to build an audience, then leverage that into a print deal if you can pull it off.

"One bit of conventional wisdom that I always see in downloadable digital content and DRM discussions is that companies will go out of business without DRM because people will start giving away content for free and starve the companies for resources. Like most bits of conventional wisdom, I think it's provably wrong if you know where to look. There is already a booming business trading in on-line content that is largely DRM free and seems to show no signs of slowing down.

I'm speaking of porn, of course, which (in whatever experiences I've had with it) doesn't bother DRM'ing images or movies that people download. Streaming video is about as far as I've ever seen a porn site go into DRM. I'm sure that there are people who pay for porn just to upload it to sites so other people can get it for free, but they don't seem to be having any impact at all to the bottom line of the business.

Any counter-argument I can think of to why selling porn is different from selling music or comics or whatever else you like usually boils down to, "Well, people who buy porn are different," with a heavy implication that their moral standards are lower than that of the general populace because they're buying porn in the first place. In this case, though, the counter-arguments undermine themselves. If those nasty, immoral porn people don't share their filth with each other for free, then it would seem that the "normal," upstanding consumers of not-porn really ought to have enough moral fiber to do the same.

If porn is too uncomfortable for people to wrap their brains around, then the Wall Street Journal is just as good of a substitute. Porn is just more of an attention grabber (and some might even argue that the WSJ is porn, too, but let's not go there just yet). The WSJ charges for their content and nobody who subscribes to the Journal goes out of their way to post WSJ content everywhere for free.

In both the WSJ and porn, about the only thing that truly prevents the largely unprotected content from being distributed freely is the copyright notice and the threat that getting caught means you'll be sued by someone who can out-lawyer you. Beyond that, though, is a simpler enforcement mechanism that's built-in to people, and that's that people don't usually want to give away stuff that they paid for. It's really as simple as that. I bought this digital whatsis. No matter how cheap it was, why the hell should I just give it to you for free?"

You mean to me? Because you're so nice and I'm so deserving, and French fries always taste better off someone else's plate. But there's a little apples & oranges in your argument. Beside people frequently sending me articles from the Wall Street Journal to back up some point of argument, there isn't really a cultural market for the Wall Street Journal. It doesn't compare to music, movies, TV shows or even comics as a cultural artifact. I'm sure there must be someone out there who doggedly collects The Wall Street Journal, but I don't imagine the secondary market for it is particularly strong, while I imagine that the business market probably shares a lot of physical copies among office staff, etc. Porn's another beast. I do know a few people who collect porn, but generally porn's a private matter; it's not widely shared because there's still something of an embarrassment factor to it. But I doubt anyone's too worried that either Vivid Video or the Wall Street Journal will send lawyers after them for copyright infringement if they do share them. But it's not so much that the content of either is more or less pirate-able than comics etc. it's that the cultural interaction between its consumers is different. But let me check a bit torrent site before I close out that chapter... And there's tons of porn available there, so it looks like it's not so much that the porn audience doesn't share as that the porn producers don't care. And why should they? More porn out there just makes more porn customers in the long run.

"Being a "foreigner", i.e. a Brazilian living in Brazil, I often bit-torrent issues which are either unavailable or too expensive for my spending-on-comics money. The cost of X dollars per comic when imported to Brazil almost triples, so I end up downloading the comics which I unfortunately can't buy. I think it is a valid way for me to have access to the stories which I'd love to read but am unable. I do buy titles regularly, but buying all the ones I'd like would be impossible. I don't often share these comics with people in the US or in Europe because they have easy access to dollar-bins, ebay, etc. When I do share, it's with people in Brazil or my neighbours in the rest of Latin America.

Granted, we do get a good amount of titles translated and published here in Brazil as collections and all (those I buy, and I'm satisfied with the quality of printing and translating) but lesser known titles or titles that just aren't that popular end up downloaded. In addition, downloading allows me to have access to older, more rare comics which I would never be able to find here."

Makes sense to me, and with that I think we'll draw the whole bit-torrent/DRM discussion to a close for now.

Congratulations to Devlin Thompson, the first to correctly identify last week's trick cover theme as comics originally published in uncommon formats. (The ringers were DESTROY, originally published in a much larger format but pictured in its comic-sized 3D comic format, and BLACKMARK, which debuted in the small mass market paperback format.) Devlin's points your attention to his own blog, Early Works, where he runs and comments on comics art he drew as a young teenager.

Apologies to Ben Avery and his chosen link, the charity Feed My Starving Children. Accidentally transposed letters in the web address, sending clickers to somewhere else entirely. Click on the name now and go to the real website, because it's still a worthy cause.

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, but there's no need for one this time because the solution is right under your nose. Good luck. (Since readers have started complaining the challenges have gotten too easy, I thought I'd toughen one up a little.)

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?

The first TWO GUNS cover is part of this week's Comics Cover Challenge, by the way. The following isn't. But I couldn't resist.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I'm reviewing comics sent to me - I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them - at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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