Issue #302

Hey, baby, it's the Fourth of July. I know it must be because every scrap of junk e-mail in my inbox is telling me to celebrate my independence by buying crap for them. Speaking of independence, Scooter Libby's free. Let that be a lesson to Paris Hilton: if you want to dodge jail time, you have to know a better class of rich people. Next time, go to work for a vice president obsessed with secrecy and manipulation and learn of all his skeletons, so that when you get convicted of things like obstruction of justice right at a time when Congress is starting to peel back the layers of his hidden deeds and machinations, the vice president will tell the president to commute your sentence and claim it's because your sentence was "excessive" even though he could just have cut it down to something less "excessive," because every step you take toward a prison cell is just one more opportunity for some lawyer to convince you to spill everything you know in return for a suspended sentence. But it all worked out in the end, because now Scooter can go home and play with his kids. When he's not lying to investigators.

In honor of this special day, a word from one of our founding fathers, composer of the Constitution and this country's fourth president, not to mention the namesake of my former hometown, James Madison. Take it away, James:

"...if the President be connected, in any suspicious manner, with any person, and there be grounds to believe he will shelter him, the House of Representatives can impeach him; they can remove him if found guilty."

Wave those sparklers, enjoy some corn on the cob. It's the Fourth Of July!

This is the time of year, right before the San Diego Convention, when a lot of aspiring artists write for advice on how to show their work. I've done several columns on the subject in the past that can still be found somewhere in the Permanent Damage Archives, and while it might take a little digging (sorry, I don't have a column index) they're in there, and the information never seems to change. The quick rules of thumb are:

1) Do a three page sequence so editors can get an idea of your storytelling and ability to draw a variety of things, including buildings, cars, ordinary people, etc. If you want to do one cover or splash to show how well you handle that sort of thing, fine, but only one, because comics art isn't about single images, not usually.

2) Only show your newest, best samples, and don't think flooding an editor with art will impress them. It won't. Concise is better. Editors usually don't have a lot of time at conventions, and are beset by many besides you. Intend to use up as little of their time as possible.

3) Have a supply of photocopies of the pages ready to hand out, with your contact information attached. Do not just thrust your photocopy packet into an editor's hands.

4) Politeness will get you further than swaggering will. Politeness won't matter much unless your art is good enough to interest an editor, but swaggering may convince them you'll be tough to work with even if your art is good.

5) Give your art a really good self-assessment before you show it to an editor. Kill your ego dead for this one, and look at it with the coldest eyes you can muster. Do you fudge hands and feet? Ears? It doesn't have to be brilliant, but "not good" is far from the same thing as "not brilliant." You can show "not brilliant" if you like. Never show "not good." Don't look at the worst comics art you can find and tell yourself you're better than that; look at the best you can find and see how well you measure up.

Assuming you already know how to draw, which when we're discussing would-be comics artists seems to be a huge assumption but we'll let it go anyway, you need two things: storytelling - the ability to convey coherent action via a sequence of static panels - and style. Style doesn't mean you have to draw like Rob Liefeld, or Jim Steranko, or Ted McKeever or Peter Kuper, it just means consistency. It means that a person or object you draw in one panel can be easily identified in the next panel, and the next and the next, and all the panels look like they were drawn by the same person. You wouldn't think this would need to be said, but, from the looks of a lot of comics I see, it does. Style doesn't mean you have to make it look like superhero comics, or Archie comics, or like manga or anything else, it just means consistency and identifiability. You can train it to some extent, but much of it is an unconscious outgrowth of your personality. Just draw comics and you'll be one of a million. Master your style, and editors will look at you as one in a million.

If it's a style they can use.

Sometimes you read the weirdest things on the Web. Over at The Hive, comics writer Alex di Campi starts a rant against the pitch process at Vertigo, then Brian Wood, who has a couple books coming out from Vertigo now, steps in to try to talk her off the ledge. He then seemingly has her almost convinced to give Vertigo another shot, which she might now want to think better of, because... Really, it goes on for hundreds of messages, but there are a couple salient points people might want to consider:

We live in an era in which, despite the presence of some of the best writers ever to grace the medium, companies increasingly like to dictate storylines and generate project ideas. The fact is, you never know at any given time when you're asked to pitch editors whether they want to hear what you want to do or have in mind something they want to do. It's far from unheard of for editors to let you pitch until you hit something along the lines of what they've already decided they want to do, and then they "work with" you to massage your idea into what they had in mind in the first place. And sometimes they leave you alone entirely.

This is just the way things are. Even with the same editor, you can't be sure from day to day. It's just part of the game, get used to it. The short version is this: if an editor asks you to work on a project, it's a compliment. You don't have to accept the assignment, though in some instances editors feel insulted and slighted if you don't. But we're not in a business where, despite images in the press, the writer is often considered the proper manager of the material, and the attitude goes far beyond our medium. Not that it can't be overcome, but most of us can't go into any situation assuming "our" vision will end up being the dominant one, because editors have their own ideas, and artists have their own ideas, and publishers, and marketing people. It's not even fair to say you have to "fight" for your vision, though that certainly makes for a macho image and a good soundbite. It's more like having to play chess for your vision, and in most instances your vision of the story or idea ends up being the dominant one not because you've browbeaten everyone else involved into submission, but because you've convinced them to cooperate with and trust you. Sometimes that's a gimme, sometimes it takes a hell of a lot of work. Especially if you're relatively unknown, or haven't worked on any big sellers or fan favorites for awhile.

Really, if you're not expecting that, you're in the wrong business. You don't necessarily have to play along with it, but you ought at least to be expecting it, and while in a perfect world all publishers would want to play with us even when we refused to play by any but our own rules, the smart money will always be on expecting that they won't. Sometimes you're pleasantly surprised. It happens. It's just not a good idea to expect it.

But, while we are a catty business, there are many private groups where comics pros share information about the behavior of editors, it's generally not a very good idea to trash editors in very public forums. Unless you're really not interested in working. Which may sound a bit strange in this column, since I comment on the comics industry all the time, but policy decisions, creative choices, general trends, these are all fair game for critique. I'd generally hope editors and other talent don't think there's anything personal going on, but when you're deeply involved in something everything about it's personal on some level, so if they do they do. Start sniping at their fashion sense, children or living partners, medical conditions and like that, and you're not only asking for trouble, you probably deserve it. Editors talk to each other. Even editors who hate each other - there are more of them that you, and probably they, would think - share war stories, even among companies that hate each other.

If some true injustice is done someone, sure, by all means talk about it. Other freelancers should be armed with that knowledge before they go into dealings with the same publisher or editor. There are ways to get your story to people who need to know about it without doing a feature article. The court of public opinion only works if the people you're going after are sufficiently bothered by public opinion, and pretty much nothing convinces a publisher/editor attacks are unwarranted and unjustified as being publicly attacked, if that makes any sense. Having a pitch bounced then finding the involved editor working on a "the names have been changed" identical project, that's grounds for public disclosure, though it might work better as a final doomsday scenario than an initial salvo. Having a pitch rejected isn't. It happens to everyone, and most pitches get rejected. That's just part of an editor's job. Having an editor show no interest in your work, that happens to. A lot. Thick skins are a suggested accessory in this business.

While savaging an editor may be a great way to tickle your bruised ego, it pays to remember that even editors have on days and off days and that there aren't so many paying venues in comics that it's necessarily a smart move to burn bridges no matter how pissed off you may be in the moment. In theory, a freelance writer is going to want a long career in comics, so it doesn't hurt to start developing good habits - like no public personal attacks though what you think as you snarl at your mirror in the privacy of your own bathroom is up to you - because even if you plan to abandon comics sooner or later for other markets, other venues for paid writing aren't all that different, and in some ways many of them are a lot rougher. Going public with personal grudges is like using dynamite untrained. It's just as likely to blow up in your face as do you any good.

Notes from under the floorboard:

A quick graphic novel review: Eddie Campbell's THE BLACK DIAMOND DETECTIVE AGENCY (First Second Books; $16.95) sort of sums up everything right and wrong with the modern graphic novel. Campbell's something of a legend now, and deserves to be; his dialogue shows a fine ear for inflection and implication, his intentionally rough art dances with life, his storytelling is clean. The book is a turn-of-the-century detective western, as an outlaw implicated in a murderous train robbery seeks the men who framed him. The story's fine as far as it goes, with good unexpected turns and excellent characters. I'd recommend it to anyone. But (it may not help that the book was adapted from a screenplay) that's the problem: even with all of Eddie's skill behind it, it's just not weighty enough - and I don't mean long - to really feel like a "novel." The narrative is carried by pictures and dialogue, and while it's nearly perfect comics style, the characters remain remote, we remain voyeurs, peeking into their story rather than being absorbed in it. And it's not Eddie's fault, it's a common problem with "the new graphic novel." The graphic novel has become the ultimate vindication of the comics form, but what worked for a ten page SPIRIT story or a 20 page FANTASTIC FOUR is only haltingly translating into the longer formats. We need to develop new narrative modes for what's essentially a new medium, almost as much a jump past comic books as comics were past newspaper strips. It's not enough for the graphic novel to celebrate the comics form, though by this point we've plenty of reason to celebrate. It needs to evolve. We need to transform it. But until that happens, THE BLACK DIAMOND DETECTIVE AGENCY makes a very good read.

My favorite song of the week is Amy Winehouse's "Rehab," as perfect a '60s soul knockoff as I've heard in years, and funny as hell. I first heard it on Area 108, a great modern indies rock station we have out here in the Las Vegas valley (107.9 FM, if you want to get technical; dunno if you have a Jack format station where you are, but it's kind of like Jack without the forays into tripe like Billy Joel and AC/DC...), while I was driving, and nearly cracked up the car I laughed so hard. Since there are only about half a dozen soul songs I can stand, I'm sure if I listened to it ten times in a row I'd get sick of it, but in my own private rotation - let's face it, you can't leave these things up to the radio most of the time, not anymore - it works just fine.

BURN NOTICE debuted on USA Network (Thursdays 10P) last week, and it's an enjoyable blow-off of an hour, for the most part. The conceit is that Jeffrey Donovan (from the American version of TOUCHING EVIL; I guess USA, which also aired that, is determined to make him a star) is sort of a superspy - not belonging to any one agency, but doing "support services" for whichever one, presumably all American, wants to broker out to him - who suddenly and inexplicably finds himself on the receiving end of a "burn notice" that effectively puts him out of a job and theoretically closes all communications with him. He finds himself exiled to Miami, stripped of his bank accounts, spied on by bored feds, condescended to by a Provo ex-girlfriend, tormented by his harpy hypochondriac mother, and forced to put his tradecraft skills toward a series of odd security/detective jobs to put a meager roof over his head and food on the table in order to survive long enough to figure out who burned him and why, which is the uberplot. The writing's breezy, the actors (including Gabrielle Anwar, Bruce Campbell & Sharon Gless) are entertaining, esp. Donovan, who plays his central role with lanky charisma and a charming combination of humility and egomania, and the recurring lectures on the application of tradecraft are a lot of fun. If the first episode is emblematic, the show also has one potential landmine of a problem: "the job of the week" needs to be a lot more compelling - the first was a patently transparent art theft plotline that was old when BANACEK was new - and, while this was obviously the episode for defrocked superspy Michael to show his command of his new environment despite his setbacks - his opponents of the week need to be much more convincing threats, rather than the first episodes stooge villains. They've got much of the competition-free summer to work out the kinks and, like I said, the show's an enjoyable blow-off of an hour in any case, but once ULTIMATE FIGHTER returns to that timeslot on another channel in August, all bets are off.

Speaking of enjoyable blow-offs of time, you could find worse ways to kill two hours plus than LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD, the fourth adventure of Bruce Willis as cop John McClane. I watched the original DIE HARD again a couple years ago, and it really was this huge sea change for action films, but while the other two DIE HARD entrees failed to capitalize on it (though DIE HARDER had its moments) the new one isn't too far from the mark. McClane's a bit too much of a superman in this one - part of the original's charm was that he came off as far from the "superman" action star typified by Stallone or Schwarzenegger as imaginable for the time - and the action occasionally goes too far over the top (esp. during an overpass chase with a semi rig and a fighter jet in the film's waning moments), but they play it reasonably smart anyway: although plot extrapolations get complicated, the plot itself is frighteningly simple and frighteningly easy to imagine really happening, and they start the action right away and keep it going not at exactly a breakneck pace but fast enough that you don't have time to think about it. Good support acting as well, by Justin Long (who played the nerdy kid on NBC's ED and is the preening, obnoxiously self-satisfied personification of the Mac in Apple Macintosh commercial, but is just right here as a baffled computer hacker), Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and DEADWOOD's Timothy Olyphant pulling the underwritten part of the computer genius master criminal through on personality and talent alone. I don't usually recommend people not think about films after they've seen them, but LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD is a summer breeze of a film: refreshing while it's there, and then it's gone. But while it's there it's a lot of fun.

Oddly, a lot of the political sentiments in LIFE FREE OR DIE HARD are strangely anti-neo-con (it's the Administration's climate of secrecy that generates the film's crisis in the first place and cripples the ability of the FBI to cope with it) so it was strange to watch Antoine Fuqua's SHOOTER on DVD the same day. SHOOTER's based on Stephen Hunter's novel POINT OF IMPACT, about a hillbilly Vietnam vet sniper framed for an attempted presidential assassination. The book's a classic thriller, and the aging, reclusive Bob Lee Swagger an unusual hero, and the film doesn't measure up to either. Mark Wahlberg tries valiantly in a part Tommy Lee Jones should have played twenty years ago, but the film's first quarter is bogged down by the build-up of the assassination plot, which is so empty of suspense everyone acts like they're sleepwalking. The film picks up some post-assassination, with Bob Lee on the run... but the really startling moments of the book don't translate at all, and the cascade of plots, counterplots and firefights never quite hit critical mass, though it's watchable. What's really strange and fascinating about the film is its flagrant and vehement condemnation of the neo-con "interventionism for democracy and profit" worldview, and of the cynical manipulation of genuine patriotism toward ends not in the interests of the American people. Stuff like that just doesn't come out of Hollywood these days. The times they are a-changin'?

Don't forget to pick up the latest CRIMINAL #7, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, from Marvel's Icon label. Sure, those guys are close to geniuses when it comes to terse and sexy crime stories, but the issue's real grabber is my essay on Robert Altman's THE LONG GOODBYE, in which I redeem the film from decades of condemnation by crime film and especially Raymond Chandler fans. You wouldn't believe the amount of e-mail the piece has generated... (You people do realize that if you keep voting Ed Brubaker and Harvey awards, you'll just encourage him, don't you?)

Congratulations to Rocky Parsons, the first to figure out the solution to last week's Comics Cover Challenge was "constellations." (There's one referred to on every cover, with "crux" being the official Latin name of the Southern Cross. Many figured it was "zodiac," but while zodiac constellations were referred to, not all constellations were in the zodiac.) Rocky would like to aim you at Tom's Shoes, and wants to mention that not only do they sell stylish, comfortable shoes, every purchase also provides shoes for needy South American kids. It's not like you don't have to buy shoes anyway, you might as well get a little social responsibility out of 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. Just to do you all a favor, I've cleverly hidden a clue somewhere in this column and I feel I should tell you the answer has nothing to do with Harlan Ellison. If there's anything else I can do, just name it.

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.

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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