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Issue #36

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Issue #36
[Vertigo Pop: Tokyo #1]
Vertigo Pop: Tokyo #1

Over on our sister site COMIC BOOK WIRE they’ve been touting a new Vertigo project called VERTIGO POP: TOKYO, with some great art by Seth Fisher, that’s a pretty strong departure for the company. As DC describes it, “The first of several VERTIGO POP miniseries debuts. A lone American armed with a state-of-the-art digicam invades Tokyo in search of the ultimate in techno-cool. Just when he thinks he’s figured the place out, a precocious, ultra-hip Japanese high-school girl sweeps him away into the fast, furious and unforgiving underside life in the world’s most electric city. Traditional Japanese values of honor, harmony and Yakuza gangs collide with the accelerated influence of American pop culture, exploding into a crisis that could happen nowhere but Tokyo!”

I bring this up because my pal Jonathan Vankin is writing it, something that hasn’t been mentioned much. (I’m allowed to pimp my pals in my column. Honest.) Maybe DC doesn’t realize Vankin has name value in certain circles. Vankin comes to comics late – an increasing trend with newer comics writers, who gain their experience in other markets before jumping to our medium – but he’s renowned in conspiracy literature as the author of CONSPIRACIES, COVER-UPS AND CRIMES (From JFK To The CIA Terrorist Connection) (Dell Books) and co-author of THE 70 GREATEST CONSPIRACIES OF ALL TIME, and his clear-headed commentary in those books gained him a rep that resulted in periodic TV talk show appearances; he’s the guy they call in when they want an overview of the conspiracy milieu. (He’s also the guy I chose to write the new introduction to the reissue of my Kennedy assassination graphic novel BADLANDS, coming in July from AiT/PlanetLar Books.)

So I figured it was time someone had a chat with Jonathan about VERTIGO POP: TOKYO and other things.

You started out writing non-fiction books and articles. What made you decide to turn to comics?

It wasn’t a matter of turning to comics, it was more a matter of getting around to comics.

I grew up with comics. I learned to read largely from them. Started on Peanuts books, actually. And my parents bought me a Batman paperback. Cover price, 50
cents, as I recall. I still have it. A little later on, my Dad had a copy of Jules Feiffer’s THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES lying around the house and I read it over and over.

In the 60s and early 70s, reading comic books was much more of a normal thing
than it is for kids now and it just stayed with me. I drifted away from them, then came back in high school, in the mid-70s when Marvel was at its best and DC was doing some of its all-time best Batman stuff. Drifted away again, then came back in college. And that’s how it’s been my whole life. I just can’t shake ’em.

It’s probably not too surprising that I always wanted to write comic books. But my career took a journalistic turn right out of college. I guess the non-fiction side of me comes from my Dad, who was a scientist. He still is, a
biologist, but retired for 10 years now. I was never that great at science, but I do have that factual, pragmatic mentality in a lot of ways. The literary
bent, I guess, comes from my Mom’s side of the family. That’s probably why I got into journalism and why, other than comics, I’ve always read and written much more non-fiction than fiction. I just like to learn things. Journalism and non-fiction writing lets you do that.

Anyway, it’s no coincidence that when I finally turned to comics, I wrote non-fiction: Paradox Press’ “Big Book” series. And though VERTIGO POP: TOKYO is most definitely 100% fiction it’s also very much reality-based. The way Tokyo appears in the series is the way Tokyo really is. The characters, though fictional, are also “real.” You’d meet them all in Tokyo if you stayed
there long enough. On the other hand, I’m very, very glad not only to be
writing comics but to be writing fiction comics! After almost 20 years of having to make sure that everything I wrote was absolutely true, it feels great to be able to finally just make stuff up.

Did being established as a writer in another area help you get into comics?

Definitely, in a very direct way. Several years ago when DC published THE BIG BOOK OF CONSPIRACIES I found that my first book, CRIMES, COVER-UPS AND CONSPIRACIES, was cited in the end notes numerous times. I thought, “I could have written that book!”

In fact, it was extremely well written by Doug Moench. I recognized that name. MASTER OF KUNG FU, MOON KNIGHT and other comics. So I tracked
down Doug’s phone number and called him up, just to chat. Because of my book I fooled him into believing I wasn’t just some crazed fanboy.

As it turned out, Doug’s a great guy and we became friendly. Later, he hooked me up with Andy Helfer, who was editing the Big Book series. Because I was already a published author, there wasn’t any question that I could actually write a book, and Andy began talking to me about an idea he had in mind that turned into THE BIG BOOK OF SCANDAL. I wrote that, THE BIG BOOK OF GRIMM, THE BIG BOOK OF THE ’70S and about half of THE BIG BOOK OF BAD. That got me noticed by Shelly Bond at Vertigo. A couple abortive attempts to get a project going with her finally led to VERTIGO POP: TOKYO

So if I hadn’t written those earlier books, I’d never have broken into comics, because by that point I wasn’t going to go about it in the conventional way.
Whatever that is.

Once you got in, do you feel it helped or hindered your comics work to have worked in other areas?

It absolutely helped and continues to help. I’m a strong advocate of versatility in writing, not specialization. I think this applies to any area of
writing, but since we’re talking specifically about comics, I do believe that the field would benefit a lot if more comics writers became writers first and
comic-book writers second. Whether the field benefits from having me in it reamins to be seen. But in general, I think that rule applies.

Of course, there are plenty of terrific writers in comics who have never written anything but comics. But on the whole, I think that there are a lot of comics that are only about other comics. Just like many filmmakers these days make movies about other movies. When your main reference point is the medium you’re working in, it leads to sameness and stagnation. That applies to movies, TV or anything really. Diversity of experience is good.

I think – at least I hope – VERTIGO POP: TOKYO will feel different from any other comic. Because I’m bringing the perspective of a writer who’s spent almost two decades writing and researching other things.

So what’s the gist of TOKYO?

It’s a story about a guy who moves to Tokyo for reasons he’s not even totally sure of. Basically, he likes the high-tech gadgets that you can buy there,
months or years before they come out in the states. When we meet him, he’s purchasing a state-of-the-art digicam. Lost and lonely, he falls for a Japanese high school girl. But she’s obsessed with a flamboyant, arrogant rock star. She thinks she can use her new American friend in her plans pursue the rock star – and to become a star herself. That’s what she dreams about. As it turns out, the rock star is also being pursued by a yakuza gang who want a piece of his considerable action. Then, the fun really begins, and our American hero captures it all on digital video.

What was the generation of TOKYO? Did it start with you or with Vertigo?

After my first proposals died, Shelly came up with the idea of putting me together with Seth Fisher. That was at the next San Diego con, 2000 I think. She figured a proposal of mine would have a better chance with an artist attached. She liked Seth a lot knew that we had both lived in Japan, so she suggested that we meet and brainstorm a story set there. I think part of the idea was that Vertigo, which had set comics in a number of exotic locales, had never done a Japan story. We came up with some basic story concepts, but for whatever reason, none of them exactly turned me on. I did write something, but I didn’t much like what I’d written. I don’t think Seth did either.

Early last year, just when I was getting very discouraged, Shelly called me and told me about this idea she had for a line called “Vertigo Pop” that would be about how American pop culture affects pop culture in foreign countries, or cities, and she suggested that I come up with a Japan story based on that theme.

That somehow flipped my switch. I came up with the idea of a story starting with the fact that high school girls are the ultimate dictators of pop culture in Japan. I wanted my main teen-girl character to be a devotee of “visual kei,” or “visual rock,” which for lack of a better explanation is sort of Japanese glam rock. That description doesn’t really do it justice, but imagine an entire genre of rock spwaned from Sigue Sigue Sputnik. It’s a huge thing over there. I knew the story had to be told from the point of view of a young American in Tokyo, not only because that fit the “Vertigo Pop!” theme, but because that was the only point of view I could honestly tell the story from and I wanted another theme of the story to be the ways in which Americans perceive and relate to the Japanese. Not just on a culture-to-culture level, but on a more personal level.

So that was the genesis of the idea. I wrote the whole story, in “step outline” form and sent it to Shelly who flipped for it. She sent it to Seth who also loved it. Karen Berger had some really good suggestions, which I incorporated into a revised version of the story.

Do you have anything to do with the other “Vertigo Pop!” books?

I do. Currently, Vertigo Pop! is planned as a year-long “event” consisting of three, four-issue minis. TOKYO is the first one, followed by LONDON, by Peter Milligan and Philip Bond. The third is BANGKOK, written by yours truly and drawn by an artist to be determined. Shelly has an artist in mind. Hopefully I’ll know soon.

Okay, from a writing standpoint: there are certain freedoms and restrictions in any form of writing. Coming from a prose/non-fiction background, what elements of the comics medium (not the business) did you find yourself butting heads with?

In terms of the writing style, I adjusted pretty well. It probably helped to start on the Big Books, which are sort of a halfway point between nonfiction prose and comics, stylistically. The brevity required in comics has been a challenge, but not a problem. Coming from journalism, I’m used to it. Andy described a Big Book story as “35 leads.” That’s about it.

If anything, the stylistic adjustments when I got into fiction comics were even fewer. There’s much less raw information to pack into every panel. I think when you see TOKYO you’ll see that I tried to make every panel count. I was always irked by comics where I can see the writer coasting, just panel after panel of talking heads. Or page after page of two or three panels each. There are times when the story calls for fewer panels, of course, but I felt like I was cheating – and cheating the readers – if I didn’t get as much onto every page as I could. Both Shelly and Seth were good at helping me balance my compulsion to write a lot of just, well, stuff on every page and the need to give the artist a little room to draw and the reader some cool pages to look at.

Anyway, I like to read comics – with an emphasis on “read.” So in writing comics, I’m trying to write them the way I like to read them. That’s all.

All of Seth’s art is amazing in this book, but in #1 there’s a double-truck and a splash that are going to knock people out. You could sell posters of either.

Was there anything you had to adjust to?

Working with an artist. That’s in no way a comment on Seth. In any collaborative medium, whether it’s film, TV, theater or comics, you’re leaving it to others to interpret your writing. For me, actually, that’s the thrill of comics. I’m excited to see what an artist does with my scripts. But it can be an odd feeling when you actually do see it.

So that was the hardest adjustment, but also probably the single best part of writing comics. I disagree with whoever it was who said – and someone did say this, trust me – that comics are only “half an art form” unless the artist both writes and draws. To me, that makes no more sense than saying you’re not a real film maker unless you write, direct, photograph, edit and act in all of your movies. I think that comics, like film, is an art form where, as the cliché goes, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The creative collaboration, and yeah, sometimes tension between the artist and the writer – and even the editor if you’ve got a good one as we have on “Tokyo” – makes the work much better than if it was the creation of one person alone.

There are a number of excellent writer-artists. But, let’s face it, we’ve all seen plenty of comics that would have been a lot better if only the writer hadn’t done the art, or the artist hadn’t done the writing.

Anyway, on a side note, I read some article somewhere today about “The Rise of the Writer” in comics. I don’t know about the premise of the article, but I noticed that it asserted that “no artist has really forged (or synthesized) a daring new style since the rise of Image in the 90s.”

I think people are going to be pleasantly shocked when they see TOKYO, because Seth has done it.

Okay, what’s it got that’s going to grab comics readers by the scrotum?

Girls, gangsters, guns, sex, drugs, seaweed burgers, mayonnaise pizzas, pachinko, kidnapping, rioting, a man who wears a human skull as a codpiece — all the elements that today’s market demands.

If Seth’s art doesn’t grab you, well, I don’t know what to say. You just don’t like comics, that’s all.

You’ve said it’s more “real world” than most comics. How does your own experience living in Tokyo figure into it?

Quite a bit, though I need to stress it’s not an autobiographical story. There are one or two minor incidents in the story that actually did happen to me, but under very different circumstances. I relied almost totally on my own experience when it came to capturing the atmosphere, the detail and the
general feel of the city. The city of Tokyo in all its overpopulated, hyperaccelerated neon glory is the real main character of the book.

I even made two trips back to Tokyo while I was writing the thing, mainly to refresh my memory and revisit the locations in the story, which are all real places in Tokyo. I supplemented my own experiences with lots of reading and “secondary source” research. I think the story is very accurate about the attitudes of the American main character (the only American in the story), the way he feels about Tokyo and about the Japanese people. Of course, that came from my experience — my own reactions when I first came to Japan and the feelings of many, many people I met there. When you’re a westerner in Japan, your main topic of conversation with other westerners in Japan is what it’s like to be a westerner in Japan.

The story is fanciful, but not fantasy. I tried to write a story that could happen in Tokyo, but probably wouldn’t. Then again, you never know.

Tell us about BANGKOK, if you can?

Not much to tell at this point. Just getting underway. Basically, it deals with the subculture of Western “sexpatriates” in Bangkok and explores the connection between America and the Thai sex trade. The tone will probably, by necessity, be a good deal darker than “Tokyo,” but the challenge is to get some of the same craziness and humor in there as well without in any way taking the theme lightly. It’s a fine line to walk.

A lot of Murray Head references?

I’ll work on getting a few in there.

And what’s on the agenda besides that?

Comics-wise, that’s it for now. If all goes well, I’ll have something else going soon. Just doing the usual journalism stuff, got an interesting book proposal out there that will hopefully pan out shortly, that sort of thing.

When I was writing the WHISPER series, part of my angle on the character was finding very lo-tech ways to defeat hi-tech systems. With the onset of the Increased Security State and terrorists using all the hi-tech tools in their arsenal, like box cutters, to foil security and hijack airliners, new tech companies are pumping out increasingly questionable “hi-tech” to cash in on paranoia. In the last week, though, hi-tech has been taking a lo-tech beating. First, a study of the highly-touted facial biometric security systems – the kind that scan your face and match it against a security database to allow or disallow you entry to places – pronounces them all basically worthless and highly inaccurate. Then, this morning, two amusing stories appear in my mailbox. In one, a Japanese cryptographer (story here) has figured out how to beat fingerprint biometric systems with common household ingredients (Jell-O, basically), thus rendering them (at least the 11 available systems he successfully tried his end run on) useless as security tools. (Thanks to Matt Haley for passing that one on.) Then… remember how the record companies recently introduced the encrypted CD, to prevent customers from burning songs to MP3 (and, just as often though reportedly inadvertently, prevent them from playing the CDs at all)? Turns out, according to MSNBC, the very expensive hi-tech “undefeatable” security now encoded in new CD technology can easily be defeated – with a magic marker. Will record companies now attempt to ban or cripple magic markers like they periodically attempt to ban or cripple blank tape and CD-writers?

I love a good laugh in the morning.

Shortly after 9-11, I caught a lot of flak for saying the whole thing smelled a little fishy to me. For one thing, they went virtually overnight from not having a clue who the hijackers were to having total profiles with identities and histories when the bodies hadn’t even been found for identification. The scenario I suggested: that the Hand Puppet administration, for reasons extending back decades in the Security Culture, was somewhat aware of potential hijackings and allowed them to occur – without (and this is important) awareness that they’d be anything more than the standard, fairly harmless but nonetheless paranoia-inducing “we’ve hijacked a plane, meet our demands and fly us to Cuba” scenario; I never suggested nor believed for a second that anyone would willingly allow hijackers into a position to fly planes through buildings if they knew that’s what they were going to do – to promote a Security State agenda. It’s not like there are no historical precedents for such things. I still don’t know if I believe it, just that the whole thing smells like it.

So imagine my surprise last week when it turned out Congress, amid growing rancor and cries of partisanship, is investigating just who knew what when. That the Hand Puppet or his minions were privy to information indicating hijackings were likely or imminent was hardly a surprise; for months this report and that has been revealing who knew what when, from FBI field agents on up. Much of that was released in response to accusations of “an intelligence failure” without quite understanding that such revelations only increase the scale of the failure, but they were all minor stories. Only the latest “revelations” caused anything a firestorm, and it’s been very entertaining to watch all the spin-doctoring since. Most notably, the administration has been rife with more and more extreme “warnings of more terrorism,” either imminent or long-term, by Al-Qaida or other groups. (I have the vague feeling the public whispering of the dreaded word “nuclear” is intended to prime the pump some more for an invasion of Iraq.) The timing of the warnings is intriguing: since the Office Of Homeland Security has maintained a “yellow light” despite them, how much are they public relations gimmicks to prove the administration will never let such possibilities go “unheeded” again, how much are they intended to deflect American attention from the “revelations” and how much to reinforce to Americans this is not the time to doubt or question the Man On The Throne? (The funniest spin doctoring was mad dog White House press secretary Ari Fleisher suddenly announcing that a detailed military/intelligence plan to attack Al-Qaida was delivered to the Hand Puppet – on September 10! But he didn’t have a chance to read it that day! Hey, it could have happened!) I’ve scoured newspaper reports, online reports and TV news reports, and the most interesting aspect of this whole thing is that, when asked, the Hand Puppet’s administration has vehemently denied over and over in the last week that they would ever allow terrorists to fly planes into buildings if they had any indication that’s what they were going to do. Which is certainly admirable, but misses the point: I have found no instance where they deny allowing the hijackings to occur. It always gets shifted to the planes-through-buildings thing. Which doesn’t necessarily mean anything – maybe they’re just being emphatic – but there’s that smell again…

As for anthrax terrorism, they’re now giving lie detector tests to Federal employees to track down the source. Read what you want into that one…

Last week I mentioned some free programs available for PC users that make using the web safer and easier. Unfortunately, one of these – Tiny Personal Firewall – had the wrong URL, and those who did manage to find it reported it wasn’t a free program but a 30 day trial version. In fact, two versions are available: v.3, which costs $39 for a full license, and v.2, which is free. So when you click to download, click on Tiny Personal Firewall version 2.

Another great free program is a great alternative browser, MyIE. Where browsers like Netscape (which I don’t like for various reasons) and the interesting but limited Opera put in more and more features and get bulkier in their attempts to compete with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, there’s a new breed of “mini-browser” like MyIE and Crazy Browser that stays small but hooks into the Internet components already built into Windows. MyIE‘s the best I’ve run across so far, very tight and compact, doing everything IE does and more: it can open blocks of pages at a time; it registers all open pages with tabs on the bottom of the screen (and opens new pages with their own tabs) so you can quickly and easily navigate between several websites at once, and you can read one while others are loading; pop-ups also mostly come up in their own tabbed pages, and MyIE has a built-in pop-up killer so if a page comes up you never want to hit again, you click Ctr-Q while you’re on the page and it’s gone from your system for good; the program is very fast. Once you get used to the little differences between IE and MyIE, the latter makes for a very speedy, much improved Net experience (so far with no downside).

If anyone else knows of any useful free programs for PC or Mac users available on the web (and, since this is ostensibly a comics column for the Net, let’s stick to programs that would make either comics or using the Net more enjoyable), please list them at the Permanent Damage Message Board (with URLs, of course) or e-mail me with the info and I’ll do a roundup of the best at a later date.

So whatever happened to @VENTURE, you ask? For the last year, time has just gotten away from me and I’ve been unable to update it, very few writers were sending in stories and I had neither the time nor inclination (since it’s not like I was offering them money) to pester them for material, and other good sites like Opi8 have popped up in the meantime. Basically, there was no way to make a go of it that justified the time it required, and, as often happens with these things, once you get used to using the time for other things you never get back to it. At least I didn’t. So I’ve been considering “officially” shutting it down for awhile, but the decision was recently taken out of my hands. The site registration came up for renewal, but I never got notice of it and the next thing I knew the name had been registered out from under me by some Hong Kong holding company which I’m sure is willing to sell it back to me for several thousands of dollars. This is a game being run on a lot of sites these days; Lea Hernandez and Matt Howarth both informed me they’ve been victimized by it. In this case the scam just punctuates the inevitable. Au revoir, @venture. On to the next windmill…

Some final thoughts relating to the SPIDER-MAN movie and the efforts of comics companies to leapfrog from its success.

There has been considerable discussion online about Marvel’s potential for cashing in on the movie in Hollywood, particularly in light of the widespread perception that they were unable to capitalize on the success of the X-MEN movie a couple years back. Despite an equally widespread perception of the “value” of Marvel’s “licensable properties,” there’s just not that much potential there, since Marvel’s biggest properties were mostly optioned long ago mostly from positions of weakness and the corporate perception that it’s better to have movies out there publicizing Marvel properties than to waste time wrangling the best deals possible (this isn’t uncommon among publishers of any kind unfamiliar with dealing with Hollywood) and their minor properties (barring things like MORT THE DEAD TEENAGER, which I seem to recall was also in the movie works some time ago) are pretty minor, though clearly the success of BLADE indicates there’s no concept so minor the right people can’t make a go of it.

How could Marvel have taken real advantage of SPIDER-MAN? If they had taken the last six months to a year creating and strongly promoting a dozen strong new properties (admittedly much easier said than done, particularly in the current market) with media-friendly hooks, when Hollywood comes a-callin’ in the wake of SPIDER-MAN (and you know they will, because nothing exceeds like success), the company would’ve had something fresh and unattached to dangle in front of them, and would’ve been able to, finally, bargain from a position of strength.

Not that I really think that’s how a comics company should be run, with an eye toward marketing to other media, but, since so many are thinking that way these days, if you’re going to do it you might as well do it smart. I’ve got nothing against doing things that way either, as long as you don’t pretend you’re trying to do something else instead, but, again, do it smart. Most companies don’t. If your idea is to market to Hollywood as a prime focus of publishing, publish what Hollywood is likely to want. Meaning: strong and morally defined protagonists, clear conflicts, tell the stories from the point of view most likely to be viewed as the central character in a movie, etc. Most publishers, on the one hand they’re looking to score big in Hollywood, on the other they’re trying to be all “edgy,” as if that means anything anymore. You can get Hollywood’s attention with any of four things: a really good strong concept that’s an original take on a familiar topic or theme, a very identifiable and appealing central character, media attention talking about how good the book is, and big sales. Any comics company courting Hollywood had better publish books capable of achieving at least one, preferably all, of those things.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the 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.

Those wanting to subscribe to the WHISPER e-mail newsletter should 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.

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

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