Issue #34

$114 million. Not bad.

Over on Splash they're predicting that sales of Spider-Man toys will hit $1 billion. Also not bad. A little action like that and the royalties alone might dig Marvel out of the hole Ron Perelman's machinations put it in. As previously reported, comics sales alone might have done it except Marvel's new owners shaved off a large piece of the pie for their troubles, turning Marvel's first profitable quarter in recent memory into another festival of red ink. Considering those owners are Toy Biz, the same company putting out Spider-Man toys... I haven't read the contracts, obviously, but the question is whether any of the toy sales will actually fall into the Marvel Comics side of the ledger books. (At DC, for comparison's sake, most if not all licensing revenues from popular characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman fall into DC's ledgers and help buttress the publishing side of the business.)

So the SPIDER-MAN movie had the biggest opening weekend in history. (These things are never pro-rated, of course, so that's in terms of strict gross, not necessarily in terms of things like tickets sold, though at $114 million in sales at let's average $7 a pop given matinees and the vagaries of pricing across the country that's roughly 1.6 million tickets sold so that could be a record.) Certainly this puts the Spider-Man name squarely back in the public eye (hopefully dislodging any memories of the traditionally embarrassing SPIDER-MAN daily comic strip, the main exposure most people have had to the character), but what does it really mean to us?

Various effects on the comics business are possible. Right now many in and around the business are gleefully predicting a return to glory for the industry, riding on the coattails of the SPIDER-MAN movie the way the last boom coincided with the release of the first BATMAN movie. Personally I'm hoping that's the case – I can always use more money – but it overlooks a few facts. BATMAN came out in the midst of a long term surge for the comics industry. The waffling "adultification" of the medium with the rise of rise of comic shops, alternate distribution and alternative publishers, as well as moves by Marvel and DC to diversify their material, had already led to a widespread interest in comics in "cool" circles, particularly late teen and early adult ages. BATMAN the movie was largely made possible by the perception of renewed interest in the character generated by THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, which by that time had a successful comics run and had gone through a couple editions in trade paperback. BATMAN didn't create the boom, it was more like injecting nitrous oxide into the fuel mixture of a race car already approaching full throttle. From one perspective, BATMAN can be seen as exactly that: a last furious burst, after which followed an unavoidable decay. In its cartoonish grandiosity, it confirmed the popular perception that comics is superheroes, and gunned hard the collector mentality (as merchandise flew off the franchise in tidal waves), the "event" mentality, and the all-consuming desire of publishers for nothing but (wholly-controlled) properties they can transform into blockbuster movies.

A second, likelier possibility is a boom in sales of Spider-Man comics. (Certainly attaching Kevin Smith's name to them won't hurt either, as Kevin, though not a major star, is widely enough perceived as a media personality – I suspect he's actually better known as Silent Bob than as a director – to generate a certain amount of curiosity, and his recent appearance on THE TONIGHT SHOW is a reminder of the promotional possibilities he offers.) As a company, Marvel has always seen the rest of the business as riding on its coattails and been a bit resentful of it (the horrifying mess known as Heroes World Distribution was Marvel's abortive attempt to yank those coattails away), and there's no assurance a renewed interest in Spider-Man will translate into a renewed interest in comics in general. It may not even translate into a renewed interest in Marvel Comics in general. It's been a long time since "Marvel Comics" was perceived as a group entity that encompassed all their titles and generated "Marvel Zombies" who had to have everything Marvel published. The story goes that when the Arabs conquered Alexandria the general in charge was asked what to do with the famed library there. "Burn it," he said. His subordinates were appalled because there was the greatest trove of knowledge in the world. He explained, "If what the books contain is contrary to the Koran, it is heretical and must be destroyed. If the books agree with the Koran, they are redundant and unnecessary. Burn it." And the library was burned. Likewise, Marvel faces the same problem most companies face in these rare moments. A vast insweep of new readers familiar with Spider-Man but unfamiliar with comics might take the view that those Marvels not like Spider-Man are not something they're interested in, while those comics like Spider-Man are unnecessary because they've already got Spider-Man. In five or six flavors, no less, and it's noticeable that the only flavor that strongly resembles the movie is ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN.

Then there's the likeliest effect: nothing. Aside from the BATMAN TV show and the first BATMAN movie, no film or TV version of a character has ever had a significant effect on that character's comics sales. The main effect of the first SUPERMAN movie was to provide publicity leverage to embarrass DC into a settlement with DC creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. (This may not be lost on retailer Brian Hibbs, who yesterday instituted a class action lawsuit against Marvel on the behalf of retailers, claiming harm due to Marvel's publishing practices and contract breaches. Whether the timing was intended to embarrass Marvel at the moment of its great triumph, it was certainly intended to play into the widespread focus suddenly fixed on Marvel, though that focus has actually been less on Marvel than on Stan Lee.) The effect on comics sales of the very popular X-MEN movie – arguably the best post-BATMAN comics film until now - was negligible, which is said to have been a factor in the change of regime at Marvel thereafter. The fact is that the "coolness" factor of a hit movie can't be assumed to have any effect on the "coolness" factor of the comic it springs from. Predictions that the film will send Marvel stock rocketing through the roof have already floundered, as Marvel's stock, along with the rest of the stock market, fell in Monday's trading.

There will be a couple other effects. Warren Ellis predicts SPIDER-MAN's big numbers will prompt comics publishers of all stripes to rush headlong into superhero comics again, which seems likely as publishers, dazzled by numbers, will put renewed emphasis on acquiring what they can sell to movies or TV. Movie producers are likely to go on a tear to buy up (for as little as possible, of course) media rights to a lot of comics properties.

Probably the most gratifying effect is that, due to SPIDER-MAN's opening credits, Steve Ditko is now widely acknowledged as the character's co-creator. I wonder if Marvel has given him any money for it. (Not that they're legally bound to, and from what I know of Ditko he's the last guy in the world who'd come looking for it, and he might not accept it if they offered.)

I haven't seen SPIDER-MAN, by the way. I stayed home and watched SEXY BEAST on DVD instead: really nice film, but it's angering that all the media attention was placed on Ben Kingsley instead of Ray Winstone, who does an amazing and subtle job in the film, esp. considering in most other films he's the guy they'd've gotten to play the Kingsley part.

My Aussie pal Scot Snow and I keep playing this game. He keeps recommending authors to me, and I keep trying and disliking their books. This almost changed with his latest suggestion, Robert Littell's THE COMPANY (Overlook Press, 141 Wooster St, New York NY 10012), but no go. Littell's novel is a quasi-history of the CIA, following the exploits of three recruits (one a former OSS agent, the other two brought in from Yale) as they wage clandestine war on Russia and its various offshoots, in various locales like Berlin, Hungary, Cuba, and Afghanistan, from the end of World War 2 to the end of the Cold War.

Except for its bulk – almost 900 pages in length – this epic might once have derisively been referred to as a "comic book novel," and maybe it's the CIA's post-9/11 public relations push (notably the flatulent CBS action drama THE AGENCY) that's generating the good press the book seems to be receiving. It's not all bad. Littell's done his homework on CIA history and culture, and his fictitious characters gallivant alongside historical figures throughout. But that's a trap. He makes much play about false defectors bringing over enough true information to get the CIA to swallow the false information he's really trying to deliver, and Littell himself is guilty of this, maintaining a reasonable facsimile of truth right up to a point where he makes a massive misrepresentation of history to push the story along, putting the blame for a notorious death on KGB shoulders when the scantest reading of the available literature (this being a death popularly considered natural, we're automatically into conspiracy theory here) points clearly in other directions, including directions it's in the best interests of Littell's narrative to avoid.

That aside, THE COMPANY is readable enough, and the story is helped by breaking it up into sections that play like mini-novels, but the plotting is so predictable I had the book's major "revelation" figured out a good 300 pages ahead, and the red herring put in to undermine it only made it more obvious. The characters are paper thin. With a couple rare exceptions, they utterly lack nuance, and women fare the worst. Almost every woman in the book puts up an initial tough front only to tumble into bed with the heroes at the first opportunity and spend the rest of the story (where they don't die) pumping out babies and quietly anguishing when their men are in potential danger, like a domesticated version of a James Bond novel. Yet it's almost a non-action book. Everyone talks, nobody does anything, and in virtually every instance, the KGB is one or more steps ahead of them, to the point where the entire agency is reduced to semi-psychopathic stumblebums waiting to be rescued by our heroes. The only point where Littell is specifically hard on the CIA is where it's decided to arm the anti-Russian Muslims in Afghanistan with hi-tech weapons amid warnings they'll turn them on us following the end of that campaign; he savages Ronald Reagan for allowing such a thing. Again, you can feel Littell's post-9/11 anguish, though what Bin Laden and co. threw against us was about as lo-tech as imaginable short of sticks and stones. This is the one instance where it's suggested the CIA, in the person of a blindly zealous William Casey, failed the politicians. All other instances involve politicians failing the CIA.

That's the crux of the book: the lionization of the CIA. At an early point in the book, it's mentioned in passing that CIA culture breaks down along two lines, those who feel the Company's mission is to gather and filter information, and those prone to adventurism and a desire to achieve their goals by whatever means necessary. The other side is allowed to do what they want, more than one character moans, so why shouldn't we? These are post-modern '40s heroes. In the end, only two heroes are left standing, one calling for total adherence to the letter of the law and the other pursuing a more activist, if clandestine, role in world politics. We're left with two messages: the names have changed but the threat of the Soviet Union lives on; and the right and proper role of the CIA, if only we'd admit it, is to eliminate anyone we don't like, and if only we had admitted that long ago, what a wonderful world this would be.

Sorry, Scot.

Comics, we have comics:

Harris O'Malley's BETWEEN THE CRACKS #1 (Studio Underhill, Box 12044, San Antonio TX 78212; $2.50) is the sort of mini-comic I just don't see enough of: well-written and well-drawn. Sort of the 100 BULLETS version of Frankenstein. Clean writing; very clean, borderline professional art, great use of photos and what looks like zip-a-tone. At 32 pages, it's more story than you'll get most places for $2.50. Not brilliant, but real good, and O'Malley shows signs of having brilliant in him somewhere.

Nate Powell's WALKIE TALKIE* #3 (7205 Geronimo, North Little Rock AR 72116; $2 direct) opens a two part story called "Satellite Worlds." Not entirely sure what the point of the story is yet, but it deftly cuts together the slices of life, confessionals and anecdotes of torment part and parcel to many "alternative" comics into a ominous pace more common in horror stories or thrillers. It's helped along by expressive art strongly reminiscent of John Totleben's. This is strong, confident, impressive work.

Chris Juricich (1808 Chestnut St., Berkeley CA 94702) sent along two excellent mini-comics, THE COLLECTION and TOKYO DAYS ($3@). In the former, in a future where all books are on microchip, a power outage sends two kids running to their grandfather's comic book collection, then money problems force the old man to consider selling his now valuable collection. On the surface, they're just pleasant vignettes, but it's been a long time since I've seen anything that portrayed the quiet joy of the medium so well. The latter is three semi-autobiographic memoirs of Juricich's days living in Japan in the '80s that easily present a great deal of information about Japanese culture and really underscore the strangeness of being a stranger in a foreign land. Very amusing. Juricich got a good ear for language and a pleasant, cartoony art style (it could stand to be just a little surer) and he should consider developing TOKYO DAYS into a graphic novel. Good storytelling, meaty material. I dug it. Both books, in fact, and I want to see more from Juricich.

In a lesser weekk, I'd probably be a lot nicer to Joseph Morris' SUPER DUPER FUN COMIX (Torc Press c/o Joseph Morris, RR#2 Box 262B, Clay City IL 62824; $1.50), but it pales next to the above excellent work. The writing initially ain't bad – it starts with a very funny representation of comics shop blather about the "darkening" of characters like Hal Jordan – but the comic then veers off into these bizarre "action" sideroads. The art's not even bad – it's crude but so consistent it's almost stylish – but in the end I wish Morris had stuck with the conversational part of the story and stayed away from the pretty pointless action material. It's curious and entertaining in its own way, but I dunno...

I was going to review an upcoming new magazine called LORELEI but I want to consider it some more. Next week.

Wanted to mention my first Avatar Press comic, MORTAL SOULS #1, is on the stands today with art by Philip Xavier. It's a horror/crime story about a cop who discovers the world is run by the dead, and they hate us. In a fit of sheer confidence, publisher William Christensen has put plenty of copies up for reorder at Diamond, so if your retailer doesn't have it, tell him he can still order it for you. Thanks.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the newly redesigned Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail 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. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. 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.

If you want to know something about me, you can probably find the answer at Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions.

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