Issue #292

Another May, another SPIDER-MAN movie. It looks like the summer of comic book movies, even if only two of them (SPIDER-MAN III and FANTASTIC FOUR II) are based on comics; the zeitgeist will lump animation like SHREK III and THE SIMPSONS MOVIE and pop culture spawn like NANCY DREW and TRANSFORMERS the odds on favorite at the moment for being #1 box office film of the year) in the same basket. Even HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX could come under that umbrella, despite creator J.K. Rowling's alleged despising of the medium.

Which is fine. Being associated, even wrongly, with big blockbuster films won't hurt the comics business (even bad "comic book films" seem unfailing these days, as long as the Catwoman's nowhere near them) and it'll certainly raise their profile in Hollywood, despite Hollywood knowing better. (Even as I hear rumblings from studios that they're buying too many comics properties for film development, they're also scarfing up those properties right and left.) Add in 300 and GHOST RIDER and lord knows what's coming in the fall, and Marvel signing fairly big names to their projects like Edward Norton to play Bruce Banner in their next "let's just pretend the other one never happened, okay?" HULK movie, and it's the year of the comic book. Again.

It'd be nice if in this "year of the comic book" comics sales in general would pick up for a change, but I guess when it rains during a long drought it's impolite to ask for drinking water too. The only thing that bothers me about this is the inevitable backlash.

No, not that backlash. This one.

See, there are two kinds of people in Hollywood now: those who grew up with comics and love them, and those who didn't and don't and sit scratching their heads trying to figure out what the big deal is. (The third group is those who never read comics but now find them oddly fascinating, but those are mostly actors, who aren't germane to the discussion.) The first group is mostly younger guys with their own projects, like Allan Heinberg (now writing for Marvel) or their own production companies, like Benderspink. (There are a lot of highly placed comics geeks at Benderspink.) They're the guys who will be making all the real decisions in Hollywood in 20 years.

The second group are the guys making the decisions now.

So what I anticipate in a year, year and a half, should SPIDER-MAN III and FF II be the big box office guns expected, we'll see another round of superhero parody films. Why? Because there's still a widespread assumption that all comics are superhero comics, people who know comics the least cling the most to that assumption, and the second group is made up of people who know comics the least. And since they believe - correctly, but so what? - that superheroes are an innately silly idea (the success of HEROES (NBC, Mondays 8P) is not likely to change their minds, since that has pretty much gone out of its way to not refer to any of its "heroes" as superheroes, and, like SMALLVILLE, doesn't put its heroes in gaudy costumes, which is their shorthand for "see? These aren't really superheroes!"; SMALLVILLE's longevity isn't much of an argument in those circles either, since being a hit on The CW (Thursdays 8P) is like being the world's tallest midget) they're pretty much suckers for any pretty face with script that says, "Let's mock the whole idea of superheroes."

I've said it before, about superhero parody comics, but it's worth repeating: we all know the superhero as it has come to be practiced in comics is innately silly. The core idea is still okay - the being with powers greater than those of mere mortals surfaced long before Superman and it'll keep going long after all of us are dead - but the trappings, now seemingly expected, tend strongly toward the ridiculous and, as with most things, it's the surface trappings people, especially Hollywood executives, remember, and to them that's superheroes. We may know better, we may resent it, but that's irrelevant. The only way it's going to change on a mass scale - and it's been a long time since the comics business really thought on a mass scale - is with a concerted, long term, conscious effort, and that's just not going to happen.

But if the superhero is innately silly, the superhero parody is innately stupid and pointless. There hasn't been one new thing any superhero parody in any medium in the last ten years has achieved, unless we count demonstrating the dangers of capes in THE INCREDIBLES, and I'm not sure the bit was original with them. The key thing is this: we already know! And aren't most superhero projects already their own parody, whether intended to be that way?

If I were a praying man, my one great prayer (well... second one, after infinite wealth) would be no more superhero parodies. In any medium. They're too easy. They're like kicking a one-eyed one-legged dog in its blind side. They don't add anything to the discussion, they're usually an insult to the few people at least trying to do something new and interesting with the genre, and they almost always give off the ripe odor of someone who really does want to be doing superhero comics but wants to be thought of as cutting edge too. They're cheap and lazy and unimaginative, and it's only the people who don't know comics themselves who can't figure that out.

Which puts us back where we started.

But if you're thinking of doing a superhero parody, stop. We don't want them. We don't need them. If you really think you're that imaginative, do something that takes a little imagination. Which means something else.

A couple months ago, I went to lunch with a comics writer well known in the "alternative" comics market. To my surprise, he stated that most independent/alternative comics were tedious crap. Because they were all "girl comics."

He didn't mean they were comics aimed at girls, or that he had any problem with female characters. He meant "girls" in the most cynical marketing director's sense of the word: pointless touchy-feely twaddle designed to establish nothing more than how goddamn sensitive the author is. And really, as he pointed out, who gives a flying crap? Those aren't stories, they're comics as encounter groups.

This all started in the '70s, when what passed for the "counter-culture" turned to disco and encounter groups when the generation's defining issue - the Vietnam War - faded away. All that socio-political aggravation warped by a decade of bombastic psychobabble into an obsessive selfishness where half-concepts like "feelings" became prominent and changing yourself was more important than changing the world, in fact became tantamount to changing the world because whatever "change" was being promoted by whatever quack, all it would take was for everyone in the world to achieve the change and that would save the world. Personal psychofascism; it's not for nothing that it was called The Me Decade. Self-expression - a key concept of the '60s intended to break free of a truly hidebound society (trust me, it was) - degenerated into "expressing your feelings." The problem with that was that feelings were quickly separated into acceptable and proscribed; everyone wanted you to "express your feelings" until you expressed feelings they didn't want to know about. In many ways, the '70s were truly horrible times, the time when the country stratified into the Big Mother liberals who were out to save the world with acceptable behavior, and Creepy Conservatives playing on fear and greed and a populace uncertain of what to do with the freedoms events of the '60s opened up to them. (The Conservative plan, embraced since: back away from them, in an orderly manner.) It wasn't long before culture went that way as well, at least in the recognized areas: the "mainstream" being the repository of "good ol' values" and whatever was classified as "sensitive" became synonymous with "independent," in whatever medium.

And the crap just piled up like trash in a New York City garbage strike.

Thing is, there's no safe haven. If you, say, happen to point out that independent films like HALF NELSON, praised as a great, great film at the now impossibly insipid Sundance film festival (which once existed to exhibit serious independent film but now exists to sell half-assed but "cutting edge" pseudo chick flicks like HALF NELSON and PIECES OF APRIL to Hollywood distributors), is hollow rubbish with no point and no heart, the reaction is swift and automatic: you must be one of those Neanderthals whose idea of a great film is Steven Seagal beating the crap out of one paper enemy after another in increasingly brutal ways. And vice versa. But it's possible to think both suck, because they do. But then you're not playing the game.

Last week was practically a national orgy of pointless touchy feely twaddle, between the twin poles of "public mourning" for those shot at Virginia Tech and public outrage at how Alec Baldwin talks to his 11 year old daughter on the phone. And the one thing we're absolutely not supposed to say is: so what? Because, see, that's just not being sensitive.

Do we really need a week or more to mourn the victims at Virginia Tech? No one's arguing that it wasn't an awful event or a terrible loss of life. But do we really need day after bloody day of "news" reports telling us over and over and over things we already know, and telling us how we're supposed to feel - bad, very bad, traumatized even - instead of giving us any, you know, real information. Then in flood the Big Mothers trying to legislate behavior so that we can become a kinder, gentler people while the Compassionate Conservatives argue that the only thing that can save us is more police power, even if we have to give up a few liberties here and there to get it. The same bloody dance every time something like this happens while the fact is that almost none of us knew these people. Those who knew them, sure, they've got every right to mourn just as long as they want to, and probably many of them will do it in some way for the rest of their lives. The rest of us? They were nothing more to us than faces flashed by on a TV screen or printed in a newspaper and no more significant to most of our lives than any number of people who get shot or stabbed to death, or run over by cars or poisoned by their spouses or any other violent means anywhere else in the world, and it's not dishonoring the memory of the dead to remember that. There were people - parents, siblings, relatives, friends, co-workers, roommates, etc. - who were truly hurt by their passing and the rest of us do not deserve to claim any part of that pain.

Because that makes it about us, not them.

Then there was Alec Baldwin being a dick to his kid on the phone, and damn if I didn't hear some lame shrink on the radio talking about "the long term trauma" Baldwin's daughter, and others suggesting that Baldwin must be some kind of violent child molester to have spoken that way. Again, I completely agree that Baldwin should know better and was behaving like a child himself. On the other hand, listen to that tape and what you hear is a father angry about recurring behavior in his child that he has been trying to curb. There's nothing in it to suggest he's intending to perform any violence; he's just angry, and what he says is a hell of a lot milder than I heard mothers inflict on children in line at Albertson's Markets. But it has to become a federal case, with calls for social services to make sure Ireland Baldwin is "safe," and news anchors locking arms with pop psychologists to recommend how society must deal with this awful scourge.

No one's bothering to say the best way to deal with it is: grow up.

I've had it. Somewhere along the line we became a weepy, touchy-feely country wearing - no, obnoxiously displaying - its "heart" on its sleeve. It's sickening. We seem to do it mainly so news shows can make a lot of money telling us what feelings we're supposed to put on display this week, and so we can "feel better" about ourselves. Want to feel better about yourself? Go do something that's worth doing. Don't get me wrong, the psychologists are dead on: everyone has a right to feel however they want. But we were all a lot better off when everyone didn't automatically assume that translated into a god-given right to inflict their feelings and "deepest" innermost thoughts on whoever happens to be within earshot. This isn't America anymore, it's the Lifetime Movie Nation, complete with endless handwringing and pre-programmed saccharin "feelings" that we're supposed to be ashamed to not share. Enough.

Bad things happen. People who have only third-hand experience of a situation are not survivors, they're audience. Not everything is about us, and it's not supposed to be. It's time for touchy-feely America to get over itself and let victims of awful events have a little dignity instead of reducing them to televised sideshow attractions.

Notes from under the floorboards:

All kinds of interesting things on the web this week:

A good interview with Bryan Talbot on his new breakthrough graphic novel ALICE IN SUNDERLAND

Comics retailers recently rose up in Las Vegas

Mike "NEXUS" Baron, who hates talking about comics, breaks radio silence to tell you everything you need to know about writing them and everything else.

Not that most awards (except the ones with cash attached) aren't a joke anyway, but one of my favorite editors, Marvel's Tom Brevoort recently demonstrated just how pointless they potentially are by suggesting that you should vote for Stan Lee, who's up for "best short story" in this year's Eisner's, on the basis that he wrote a lot of much-loved comics that never won awards so here's your chance to pay him back for all of those. C'mon, Tom. That's what lifetime achievement awards are for. Voting for "best" anything on any basis except the quality of the specific material in question is an insult to everyone else vying in the category and to Stan, because you've now put it in the aether that if he does win, it won't be because the story was any good but because he was the sentimental favorite. (I haven't read it, so I couldn't say.) Not that they don't do that with awards all that time (cf. Martin Scorcese's "lifetime achievement" best director's award at this year's Oscars), which is why I think most awards are a joke, but is a pity award really the right way to honor Stan's body of work?

In computer industry news, Hewlett-Packard has developed an incredibly efficient printer - but won't sell it because it's so efficient they won't make as much money as they'd like off the print cartridges. (Don't forget this is a company that programs its print cartridges to expire past a certain date whether there's usable ink left in them or not.) Ain't capitalism grand?

DNA testing recently freed its 200th convicted criminal, a supposed rapist in Chicago who spent 24 years in the pen before science (rather than the legal system) set him free. I realize 200 is a tiny fraction of the number of people incarcerated in this country - we're about the most prison happy country in the world - but 200's still a big number, and big enough to demonstrate that DNA testing's no random fluke. Yet courts and prosecutors around the country still fight tooth and nail against returning to old cases when the new evidence indicates the jury got it wrong. (Interesting are the stats on why the juries got it wrong.)

Now the truth can be told! Over at The Spectator, they've figured out why Iraq's WMDs were never found: they were! (Or, at least, the empty, evidence-free rooms where they were held were, supposedly.) Only The White House won't admit it! The White House! The best part is that Republicans won't reveal this because it will make the administration look incompetent. At this point that's hardly a surprise to anyone. John McCain's even running for president by portraying himself as the only candidate as incompetent as the current administration.

Interesting article playing on multiple recent British traumas, with various unnamed intelligence sources claiming secret al-Qaeda operatives in England have teamed up with the Iranians to launch a massive assault on the motherland, probably the day Tony Blair resigns. The sheer variety of subtle messages in it smack of psy-ops: 1) Osama bin Laden is irrelevant to the workings of al-Qaeda, so his whereabouts are equally irrelevant; 2) Iranian "involvement" justifies action against Iran and vindicates Britain of any culpability in the recent standoff between the two countries; 3) Tony Blair stepping down as Prime Minister is a bad idea. Curiously, it also vaguely implicates The Kurds... could the "information" have originated with Turkey?

The low priced Internet phone company Vonage finally managed to win one against trad telco Verizon, as a court of appeals overturned a lower court judge's order telling Vonage to make no attempts to expand their business until Verizon's patent infringement suit against them is settled. Given that it'll likely take years, maybe decades, before the suit is settled and, like most young companies, Vonage's survival depends on continually expanding its customer base at least until it can recoup its startup costs, such an injunction would've been tantamount to putting them out of business. (It had already collapsed their stock price.) Indications are Verizon doesn't even own the patents in question, but that's the great thing about torts: they can drag on for as long as lawyers are willing to bill hours on them. Verizon, only one of many telcos eyeing Internet phone providers the way telegraph companies must surely have eyed the emerging telcos, seems to be willing to spend as much money as required to bring any advances that aren't advances for Verizon (like really hi-speed Internet in America, which is becoming the standard everywhere else in the world) to as much of a stop as possible. And this is the battle of the 21st century (thank you, William Gibson): at the point where corporate well-being diverges from public well-being, which should be served?

Meanwhile I seem to be all over the web this week, on the heels of TWO GUNS:

Reviews here, here and here. (You might have to scroll down some.)

Interviews here and here. (Anyone else who wants to do an interview about TWO GUNS, e-mail me.)

And Christopher Mills has been on a tear recently in his crime comics review blog Guns In The Gutters, focusing on the sadly underrecognized PAT NOVAK FOR HIRE and DAMNED as well as TWO GUNS. Thanks, Chris!

For those who've asked, I had no idea - and no idea why publishers never tell me these things in advance - but TWO GUNS #1 came out two weeks ago. You can order copies through Boom!'s website if your local retailer doesn't have any.

Finally a movie to recommend! Caught HOT FUZZ on Friday, Edgar Wright's cop "drama" follow-up to the cult hit SHAUN OF THE DEAD and a compendium of slick, sly jokes play, for the most part, absolutely deadpan. A friend pointed out that Simon Pegg's Nicholas Angel, the film's London supercop hero reassigned to a quaint, quiet English hamlet for screwing up the arrest quota, doesn't realize he's in an action movie while his partner-to-be, small town constable Danny Butterman (perennial Pegg sidekick Nick Frost) desperately wants to be in one. Some of the material will be amusingly familiar to American audiences while some of it (like the desk sergeant's taste in reading material, a setup to a joke even I missed) will go right over their heads. There are moments of sheer brilliance - Angel lives in a Hollywood action film, while the supercriminals he ultimately finds himself facing off with live in an Agatha Christie novel, leading to him figuring out the crime but missing the motive by a country mile - but the best part of the movie, even better than the totality with which Pegg, Frost and a host of (for England) superstar co-stars like Timothy Dalton and Jim Broadbent wear their characters, even better than Wright's now-you-see-it-now-you-don't lightning editing that provides volumes of information in the least time possible, is the nearly perfect script, where everything is briskly set up, and virtually every apparently throwaway bit - and there are gobs of them - ends up having a big payoff. And the last act, where the Hollywood action cop world and the Agatha Christie English drawing room world collide with bloody intensity, is the funniest thing I've seen on film in years. Maybe millions of films, and not just the likely suspects, are referenced but Wright and Pegg never put the references before the cart - if you don't get them you'll enjoy the movie just fine - and that might explain some of the negative reviews I've read, where critics seem puzzled that it's not an in-your-face parody like DATE MOVIE. But that's what works: it's a movie first and a parody second, which is how it should be. Don't miss it.

Interestingly, when I was talking to a film producer about HOT FUZZ yesterday, he mentioned that most producers have come to accept that theatrical release these days is little more than expensive promotion for the DVD release, which is where all the money is. Not unlike comics and graphic novels.

Meanwhile, as I watched THE SOPRANOS (HBO, Sundays 9P) last Sunday - a turbid episode chronicling Junior Soprano's adventures in a psych ward paralleled with Tony Soprano's flight to Florida with his brutal, blabbermouthed lieutenant Paulie wherein younger men both get homicidally dismayed with the weakness of the older men they once admired - I started thinking about all the show I'm watching now just to ride them out to the end. At this point I find (despite the threat that "anything could happen" in this final season, it's looking more and more like the same old one step forward toward cataclysm two steps back style that has plagued the show and teased real change for the last several seasons only to have everything yanked back to status quo at the last moment, and the final fade out will be nothing more dramatic than that) I no longer care about THE SOPRANOS, I only care that I finish it. The same goes of the incomprehensible blather of Cartoon Network's EUREKA7 (Sundays 1AM) and, as of this Monday, 24, suffering through its worst season since Jack was a junkie breaking drug lords out of maximum security prisons. When they announced, at the end of Monday night's latest water-treading episode, that only four episodes remained this season, my first thought was "How the hell are they going to drag this out for four more episodes?" They're out of tricks, and now I find myself pondering the previously imponderable: next year I may not bother with the show at all, and I've got this feeling I'm not the only one...

But a show I do still eagerly watch, VERONICA MARS (CW, Tuesdays 9P) returns next Tuesday in a six-week mini-arc. I've been looking at the DVD collections recently, and that show's something else that's plotted very tightly and cleverly. (It's hard to believe it comes from Joel Silver's production company.) The show has had a few growing pains this season (mainly figuring out what to do with rich boy sometimes-boyfriend Logan) but it still features some of the best writing and acting on network TV. Don't miss it.

Congratulations to Jerry Scanlon, the first to identify last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme as "neckwear." He'd like you to go check out the Perry Bible Fellowship, which isn't what it sounds like.

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. This week I'm doubling that. (I'd say it's easy, but easy's in the eyes of the beholder. To make it a little harder, I can't accept an approximately close answer this week, I have to have an exact one.) 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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