Issue #301

Five "characters" to evict from the comics storytelling pantheon:

Dresses in black suits, skinny ties and sunglasses day and night; almost never speaks or answers questions; shadows baffled but frightened investigators of all stripes in long black limousines; functions as a road agent of mysterious, distant conspiratorial employers who wish all traces of their evil plans kept from public consciousness; and kills without emotion, except for that bit of supercilious satisfaction, usually evidenced by a pointless, obtuse wisecrack, at proving superior (via assassination) to their worthless, helpless prey. Has no past and no future, and needs none, because he's a prop of jeopardy, not a real character. (Can sometimes be female, and in such cases will almost always prove physical superiority to male target via hand-to-hand combat before killing.) Works almost constantly; has earned a permanent vacation.

2) The Grizzled Old Cop

Pudgy and gruff, this stubble-chinned mainstay slouches and grumbles with world-weary bitterness about how he's "too old for this." He's at least too old to not know how to use a steam iron or where any dry cleaners are, but his clothes always look like he's been sleeping in them for five days. He wears fedoras, off-the-rack suits and frequently trenchcoats, and prefers greasy food. He complains about his bosses, courts coddling street criminals, regulations tying his hands, the press, and women's sentimental expectations, but he's always willing to show his old-school toughness. His pension will never amount to enough, but it's time he took it anyway.

3) The Greedy Idiot Genius

The classic generic "scientist," he has enough understanding of technology to build fantastic weaponry based on highly suspect scientific principle, but not enough understanding of patents, commerce or basic arithmetic to figure out that mass marketing peaceful or military uses of his invention will net him infinitely more than using it to rob banks will. Fortunately, he's not seen much anymore, but even once is too much.

4) The Ramrod

Ain't it strange how there's always one? The guy who has to tell the rest of the group/team/random collection of strangers coping with a crisis "Let's move it, people!" like he's Sgt. Fury and they don't have to brains to figure it out for themselves. Leave him behind.

Often female, they are representatives of slave races bred to have amazing powers, usually in the service of some alien conqueror, but on encountering brave, freedom-loving denizens of Earth, rebel against their masters, join forces with the Earthlings, then spend endless volumes "learning the ways of our world." Variation: bred to be a service race, they are unable to comprehend when their masters tell them to stop fighting brave but outclassed Earth heroes, but come to appreciate that what the Earthling emotions they believed were "weak" were true strength after all. Then they spend endless volumes "learning the ways of our world." Isn't there some planet somewhere they can have for their very own?

Got any others? Send 'em in!

A couple interesting letters in recently:

"Can I bring up my pet peeve, when I walk into my local comic shop (its an hour away, buts that's local to me) and scan the racks looking for something interesting, I have no idea what to pick up! There is never anything to tell me what the comic is about, you always have to go in blind. When you buy a novel, the back cover or inside flap gives you a idea of what it's about, but comics nothing. Just this weekend picked up about a half dozen comics, and put them back. The covers looked interesting, the interior art was ok, but just flipping through I got no sense of the story. There was no spandex or zombies or cowboys, just a lot of talking heads in a contemporary setting. How about it guys give us a clue, we will take a chance if you give us a reason to?"

Maybe I ought to change the column name back to Master Of The Obvious, because that one's so obvious I can't imagine why publishers aren't doing it, especially since manga is increasingly training readers to look for cover blurbs. I can understand not having them in comics that sell the back cover for advertising, but most don't. Some summary of concept and story were considered de rigueur not too long ago, usually on the inside front cover, though companies have also demanded they appear on the splash or (usually very clumsily) be incorporated into the first few pages of each story. On the other hand, a good, concise attention-getting blurb is one of the hardest things in the world to write. (The trick is to write brisk story concept synopses with a drop of plot development rather than extended plot summaries, but comics fans and marketing departments alike seem madly in love with the latter.) In any case, yes, a well-crafted, easily found summary/blurb might go a long way toward increasing casual sales, and the back cover's as good a place to put one as any.

"I understand your distaste (no pun intended) regarding zombies, but the fact is that what Romero did had nothing to do with zombies. He developed a project involving ghouls. Zombies--the so-called old school zombies--are mindless creatures (living as well as dead) which exist to SERVE a master. In the old Haitian legends (I'd call them myths, but there does seem to be some evidence of truth behind the tales), a person would be ensorcelled by a Voodoo priest to fulfill some service that the priest felt the victim owed; it could be to murder an enemy or do something far less sinister, like deliver a message (check out the Carl Barks' "Bombie the Zombie"--I don't recall the story's exact title, sorry). In the old legends, this was typically more easily accomplished through a living victim. Some of the more bizarre legends, however, do recount using animated corpses (though modern science has discovered a toxin which caused the appearance of death, and this was likely the truth behind the "corpse-as-zombie" legends), and Hollywood more palatable the idea of possibly having a black Voodoo priest controlling a (usually) white victim (especially in the 1930s/1940s heyday of zombie pics) than the idea that the white (Christian) man wasn't strong enough to resist the evil heathen black magic (again, no pun intended, though it fits).

When Romero decided to "revive" the zombie pic (well, I don't think he really intended that since the film was so low-budget and didn't really spark much interest in the concept for over a decade), he, either intentionally or not, borrowed the "zombie" concept from PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. (I'm sure you recall that "plan" and plotline) but infused it with a twist on the old Arabic/European tradition of the ghoul. The ghoul was a creature which robbed graves and fed on the corpses which was not a factor in traditional zombie legends--the whole purpose of the zombie was to have a slave which the master didn't need to feed or care for. (European alchemical legends had the homunculus which served much the same purpose as a zombie, for all intents and purposes, but had to receive periodic meals of the master's blood or other body fluids to remain "alive".) When Romero originally created NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, he didn't really have any real science behind his ghouls/zombies (hence the PLAN 9 connection--that was a plot by aliens to enslave the earth while NIGHT's creatures were triggered by some bizarre satellite accident, if I recall correctly) but he wasn't really trying to explain the event; it just happened. I also don't recall the word "zombie" actually being used in the original film; that became the term of use years later for any flesh-eating animated corpse or demon-possessed human (especially following the release of EVIL DEAD). I think the only place that really continued to keep the distinction between zombies and ghouls was in Gary Gygax's "Dungeons and Dragons" role-playing system (and Gygax added an additional creature--the ghast--which, as I recall, was more in line with Romero's creatures)."

Um... okay. You're being a bit of a purist on this. Romero reinvented the zombie concept, but at core it's the same concept: the moldering dead brought back from the grave, with no wills of their own, by some outside force. (Old school: the voodoo priest/priestess; new school: scientific accident or force of nature.) Ghouls, technically, are living and they eat the dead, so Romero's creations aren't old school ghouls either. While NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD offers a couple different possible explanations for the event, I don't remember it settling on one; from Romero's point of view, it was just the end of the world, and could just as easily have had a religious genesis. I understand your point, but can't say I sympathize; if anything, "old school" zombies are even less interesting than the modern version.

I've never bothered to see PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, by the way. Maybe once I run out of things worth seeing...

"The thing about zombie stories is that they're rarely if ever about the zombies themselves, it's the old tale of taking ordinary people and putting them in extraordinary situations, and seeing how they react. The situation is pretty much the same for most zombie tales (zombies are taking over the world, there are only a few people left, how will they survive etc.) but it's the ongoing soap opera-style interactions that keep, say, THE WALKING DEAD going, with a few shocks along the way to shake up the status quo. If you apply that logic to it, there's no reason why it's any different from any ongoing superhero title where the characters are the focus rather than the plot, just that the situations are different.

The only story I've read or seen that diverges from this is MARVEL ZOMBIES (there are probably others, but I'm not that widely read in the genre), where the focus is on the actual Zombies themselves, which made for an interesting change..."

Wow. So the series is innovative, after all?

"Regarding MARVEL ZOMBIES, I saw 'em last week at the comic shop. They are cute and cuddly, Hawkeye zombies, Hulk zombies, it's a zombie bonanza! It all seems pretty senseless, but when you read how SPIDER-MAN 3 was put together, it all makes sense. The original screenplay was absent Venom until Avi Arad said to San Raimi that everyone wanted to see Venom. That's why the story is so overstuffed. Producers. X-MEN teaming up with STAR TREK made as little sense until you condsider marketers saying, these are two top franchises. It makes perfect sense to put them together! Teaming up Sam Raimi's EVIL DEAD with Marvel Comics comes of similar sentiment. If you haven't seen THE BIG PICTURE with Kevin Bacon, I can't recommend it enough. It'll bring all this home..."

X-MEN teamed up with STAR TREK? As they say, nothing exceeds like success...

Okay, maybe it's time for 24 to be flat out cancelled. Not because they had a crappy season last season - the last time they had a season that crappy, they came back with two really good seasons - but... well...

If you don't know who Antonin Scalia is, you should. Hunting pal of Dick Cheney, rabidly right-wing member of the Supreme Court, and almost chief justice before the White House decided to go with a less politically volatile choice instead. Scalia attended a judiciary seminar in Canada last week - and cited the successes of CTU agent Jack Bauer (played by Canadian Kiefer Sutherland) as justification for the torture of enemies in order to gain information. Never mind that statistically "information" gained via torture is almost always useless - torture victims develop a bad habit of telling their torturers whatever they think they want to hear, just to get the pain to stop, but there's something about pain that makes people just a little too imaginative, especially when they don't have the answers being looked for - the idea of a Supreme Court Justice citing the scripted successes of a fictional character ("Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. He saved hundreds of thousands of lives... So the question is really whether we believe in these absolutes. And ought we believe in these absolutes.") as a rationale for controversial real world practices is pretty frightening. What's more frightening is that referencing Jack Bauer has become commonplace for right wingers. What's the matter? Not enough real world intelligence-gained-from-torture successes to cite? The whole "torture on 24" thing has gotten bad enough that Army men are asking the 24 producers for a sequence where torture backfires badly and only worsens a growing crisis.

I was always told there were people out there who didn't know the difference between reality and fiction, but it's always unnerving (as with the "evidence" presented to justify the invasion of Iraq) to have it slapped in your face that you're being governed by them...

Then there's Dick Cheney, busily crafting his own fictional reality from the confines of the Vice Presidential bunker. Cheney, who served in enough other administrations to know better, has declared that the Vice Presidency is, in effect, its own branch of government - apparently with powers exceeding those of any other branch of government because, in his weird view, it is not subject to scrutiny or restriction by any other (which is to say, existing) branch of government. Not the presidency nor Congress, because, by Cheney's logic, the Vice President, as designated successor to the President and President of the Senate, is part of both so therefore somehow beholden to neither, and it's not like he hasn't flat out ignored Supreme Court rulings a couple of times now. Everything about the Vice President's office has apparently been declared secret (by the Vice President's office): who works there, how many people work there, what they do, who they're doing it with. Lists of visitors to and meetings with Cheney are held strictly confidential, in contravention of longstanding practice. He even invented a whole new filing category, just for the papers his office produces: "Treated as Top Secret/SCI." SCI meaning sensitive compartmentalized information, the highest level of top secret, but that's not what he invented. It's the "treated as," which doesn't technically confer SCI status on selected papers - which is to say, virtually every scrap of paper Cheney's office produces, so that it won't be turned over to the National Archives, which are charged with collecting and preserving government papers.

Funny thing is, I remember Cheney declaring himself a fourth, unanswerable branch of government a couple years back, but I guess the press was too busy declaring global warming a probable hoax to notice. (Not coincidentally, many of the talking points denouncing studies on global warming now turn out to have been generated by Cheney's office, which controls American energy policy.) Not that Cheney doesn't have plenty of reason to want to keep his activities secret. He was determined to keep all details of his energy policy panel secret, and we still don't know who was/is on it, only that they were all power players in energy industries and no scientists allowed. He was a major architect of spurious rationales for the Iraq invasion (you may recall he co-authored a notorious 1998 think tank white paper declaring the necessity of deposing Saddam Hussein and securing the Iraqi oil fields, and his first response to 9/11 as he was hustling off to a secret location to protect him in case he needed to take the reins of government was to declare Iraq was behind it) and of the disastrous peacetime policies since, and of Guantanamo Bay, possibly Abu Ghraib (the soldier assigned to investigate the Abu Ghraib prisoner torture ring has revealed he was ordered by the military not to push the investigation beyond the immediate circle, though/because it was obvious orders for Abu Ghraib had come from very high up in the military or government), warrantless domestic spying, secret detentions without access to legal counsel, and more of the Administration's most heinous policies. (The Washington Post is running a lengthy series outlining it all. Those of you who think wisecracks that Cheney's been the de facto president for the last six years are mere hyperbole should take a look.) His former right hand man, Scooter Libby, is now being sent to prison (ironically as a result of investigations into his leaking secret information about a CIA agent, and it's looking highly likely, as Karl Rove's links with Cheney become more widely known, as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's already were - Rove, Libby and Rumsfeld's undersecretary Richard Armitage were the main figures in the leak - that Cheney concocted the leak as well, to deflect criticism undermining one of his big rationales for war) and there's still the chance, as his appeals slip away from him, that Scooter will opt not to fall on his sword when he could start telling where all Cheney's bodies are buried. Congress is threatening to pass bills forcing Cheney's compliance with all laws, and slashing the budget for his office, though the Ghost would almost certainly veto any such thing, despite Cheney's influence within the administration slipping badly as the Iraq situation gets ever worse and courts keep overturning all of his anti-civil liberties policies. The question is whether Republicans in Congress would switch sides to overturn a veto. The odds are against it, but not by much; high ranking Republicans are starting to call for taking the war away from the Administration, and many are outraged by Cheney's flouting of government regulations. Even rabid Republican Ann Coulter is going on TV and referring to the White House and its denizens in highly derogatory terms. The mood in the Republican party now seems to be to distance itself from the White House in no uncertain terms, but whether they'll be willing to reprimand the Vice President and possibly risk a constitutional crisis is anyone's guess. What's also anyone's guess is how someone with apparently no concept of the structure of American government is literally a breath away from the presidency, but we probably have to chalk that one up to the quirks of democracy.

Notes from under the floorboards:

Weird scenes: Chris Benoit, arguably the greatest technical wrestler of his generation, apparently went home to Atlanta this weekend, killed his wife, killed his son, and then killed himself. Benoit was widely acknowledged within wrestling as an incredibly nice, helpful guy with practically no ego - he was just as happy wrestling at mid-card level and carrying far less talented opponents to exciting matches as he was holding a championship belt - so it makes no real sense, but if police suspicions are right, he killed his wife on Saturday, his son on Sunday and himself on Monday. It's not hard to make an educated guess at the whys of it. But it's so crazy. Even though I haven't watched much pro wrestling in the past few years, Benoit was one of the few guys whose matches I always tried to catch, given that Benoit was on the verge of being made champion in WWE sideline product ECW, where he would have pretty much functioned as in-ring trainer for new talent, so his career wasn't spiraling downhill as far as anyone knows. What's really saddening is that all that will now forever be totally eclipsed by the events of his final moments. It's one of the few times I can say I hope they were all murdered, and that would be a better situation. The list of the early dead in pro wrestling just keeps getting longer and longer, and all of them are shocking, but Benoit was a shock the business will have more trouble than usual bearing. (Late date correction: what was really sad has become truly appalling, as the real situation has turned out to be premeditated murder with bizarre ritualistic overtones that now paints a picture of Benoit as a genuine monster. So his previous image is no longer overshadowed, it's obliterated. I feel ill.)

For anyone who needs to know, I just found out that wireless Internet connections can be found at the San Diego Comic-Con by going to the convention center's visitor's booth when you get there and signing up for a pass that covers the entire weekend. Surprisingly, it's only $5.95 for the pass. I've been to convention centers that charged half again as much for an hour of Internet time, so that's not a bad deal at all, if your hotel doesn't have access or you need 24 hour access for some reason.

Interesting developments in the Recording Industry Association Of America's war on piracy. Lately, they've been focusing their corporate wrath on colleges, trying to pressure colleges and universities into turning over their records of student Internet usage for examination. They're not citing any actual crimes that have occurred, but want to comb through the records to look for evidence of crimes. This sort of thing is difficult for even cops to pull off - or was before the Patriot Act eased up law enforcement restrictions on such things, but even there they face legal challenges - so a private organization trying to claim police powers takes some chutzpah. But in New Mexico last week, a judge schooled the RIAA, informing them that the injuries they're claiming don't constitute "irreparable harm" - remedying these things are what monetary damages are for - but handing over a person's private data without that person being allowed to challenge does. Over at the NBC/Universal, their lawyer in charge of piracy has been on a lobbying tear lately, but last week he came up with a whole new level of harm caused by movie piracy: it's destroying farming families in Iowa! See, if people don't go to the movies, no one buys movie popcorn at the concessions, and corn farmers suffer! Do these guys even listen to themselves anymore? Even if you grant him the chain of cause and effect, the last link still doesn't fit. It's just a hunch, but given the buying price of corn for popcorn and the buying price of corn for ethanol, my guess is that "popcorn farmers" would love nothing more than to watch their contracts with popcorn manufacturers evaporate so they could get in on the ethanol craze. (In Oaxaca Mexico, agave farmer are tearing up their fields and planting corn because ethanol has jacked up the buying price of corn so much. Since agave is what tequila is made from, if you're a tequila fan enjoy it while you can, because it looks like corn might wipe it out.)

Got a book from Fantagraphics in the mail today: R.C. Harvey's exhaustive biography/appreciation of Milton Caniff, creator of TERRY AND THE PIRATES and STEVE CANYON, and one of the top six most important cartoonists of the 20th century, MEANWHILE... A Biography Of Milton Caniff ($34.95). I bring this up because I'm certain, just from glancing through it, that it's something those fascinated with comics history will want to read, and that includes me, but it's also nearly 1000 pages, and even with copious illustrations that means I'm not going to be able to finish it for months. (I just don't have that much time to read anymore.) But it's out there. You have been told.

Congratulations to Chris Sequeira, the first to figure out the solution to last week's Comics Cover Challenge was "poles." (I thought more people knew this, but for those who don't: Blackhawk, when he was introduced in that very issue pictured, was Polish.) Go to 9/11 Scholars for viewpoints on the pivotal event of our era, because Chris told you to.

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 got a little surprise this week, because Bart Lidofsky, a longstanding Internet comrade who has been trying to solve one of these things for months, stacked the deck in his favor next week by unexpectedly providing me with seven covers and the solution to the puzzle. Wow. A think-free week for me. But not for you. As usual, there's a secret clue hidden here somewhere, but even without if you're clever you ought to be able to connect the dots. Good luck.

For his troubles, let's let Bart point you toward Richard Bey.Org, a website for actor/talk show host Richard Bey that features lively political discussion. But don't start sending in your own collection of covers for the challenge, because I don't plan on making a habit of this.

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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