Let's see what's going on this week in American culture...
Readers by this point have probably noticed I talk in PERMANENT DAMAGE about things other than comic books. (And, unlike in my former column MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS, often without reference to comic books.) PERMANENT DAMAGE, lifted from the title of the GTOs album on Straight Records produced by Frank Zappa, was originally my 1978 music opinion column in Madison Wisconsin's EMERALD CITY CHRONICLE, notable for reportedly enraging soon-to-be famous comics writer and then music critic Mike Baron with a three word dismissal of jazz as a music of the future. ("Jazz won't do.") This incarnation of PERMANENT DAMAGE was originally intended, a couple years back, to be an online magazine, subtitled "the Review of Western Culture," that never got off the ground. Comics are an important part of our culture, but they've traditionally (at least since Hitler died, anyway) tried to exist in a vacuum, and that's just not possible. If comics are going to take their place in our culture, they have to exist in that culture. Those who read comics aren't required to take a wider view; those who create comics must.
And culture covers more than media.
Old jingoism apparently never dies, it just lies dormant like a fungus waiting to be revived by the waters of indignation. General Curtis Lemay was a pioneer in aerial bombing, directed the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ran the airlift to Berlin in '48. Ultimately he was Air Force chief of staff, but he's best remembered for his suggestion on how to deal with North Vietnam in the early days of the Vietnam War: "Bomb them back to the stone age." It was repeated around the world as an expression of American arrogance, Lemay returned to private life to become a darling of the far right and become George Wallace's v.p. choice on the racist American Independent Party's unsuccessful 1968 presidential ticket before quietly vanishing away. And the carpet bombing of Vietnam proceeded. It didn't stop Vietnam from falling to the Viet Minh, but if nothing else the phrase "bomb them back to the stone age" inspired British writer Brian Aldiss to produce BAREFOOT IN THE HEAD, one of the classics of new wave science fiction, in which the "stone age" refers to psychedelic drugs as a tool of warfare.
"Bomb them back to the stone age" was infamous for years, so it was a little strange to hear people hurling that phrase around without irony (or, apparently, reflection) when we were threatening Afghanistan. More than a few people commented at the time the Afghans were already in the stone age, courtesy of the Taliban. Now that we've actually put them through more than a week of bombing (I was so proud on the fifth day when our side announced we now controlled Afghan airspace. Exactly how many planes did the Afghans have?) we stand on a more dangerous precipice than the American press, flush with the sales and ratings panic and jingoism engender, want to let on. There's a growing cry for, once we've unseated the Taliban (which at the moment looks inevitable but the Russians thought that about the Mujahideen in 1982 too), continuing on and avenge our ignominious defeat at the hands of Saddam Hussein (though, y'know, I'd have sworn at the time Bush Sr. claimed we won that one) by finally driving him from power in Iraq like we "should have in '91."
Which makes Americans look like thugs to much of the world. I should qualify and say the "non-Western" world because we're really not supposed to care what any of them think – they're not even white, after all, and that's the sort of thinking that has many of them convinced whatever our stated motives our only real goal is neo-colonialism – but it's amazing to think that only five weeks ago we had the virtually total sympathy of the world on our side! For the first time since the end of World War II. We could have used that. We could have done so many amazing things with that. No more. All gone now. Even Europe's starting to go a little hinky on us again. Funny thing about bombs, even smart bombs and especially bombs dropped from on high: they don't discriminate between guilty and innocent. They don't care who they blow up. Bombs are chickenshit when terrorists use them, and they're chickenshit when we use them.
I have to admit to some ambivalence here: if the Taliban (who are a pretty despicable bunch) were actually driven from power and replaced by a progressive, humane government, it would almost justify what we're doing. But history demonstrates our willingness to post support dictators and totalitarians, so I don't hold out much hope for that. What we are accomplishing is wider sympathy and support for Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and the hopelessly outmatched Taliban. One pundit recently asked how we could possibly be losing a public relations war with mass murderers. That's how.
Bear in mind that the Taliban barely have a friend in the Moslem world. (Aside from our allies, the land that generated Osama Bin Laden: Saudi Arabia. Which has recently backed off from any support for the Taliban on the grounds they were "misled.") While Bin Laden has called for holy war against Americans, most Moslem governments and churches have spoken against a Jihad because it would strike at innocent American civilians instead of the American government and would thus be unjust according to the laws of Allah. Note the difference between that attitude and our own cavalier acceptance of "collateral damage." (Can't make an omelet without breaking a few children, after all... and they're better off dead than living under a Taliban regime anyway, right?) We ignore one of our "smart" bombs going drastically off course and killing 40 innocent Afghans instead of the intended target, because, after all, the bastards drove us to it. (Similarly, during the Crusades the Moslems were often far better behaved than their Crusader counterparts, and memories of the Crusades are still strong enough there to leave them aghast at Bush's since rescinded call for "a crusade.") Our continued assaults on Afghanistan, well after the country's tenuous infrastructure's pretty much obliterated, are horrifying many. As one of my correspondents put it, our behavior reminds much of the rest of the world of night riders avenging bad behavior by one of them uppity nigras by lynching whatever nigra they happen to come across. In the name of justice, of course.
In the meantime, on the homefront, the FBI seems out to avenge its spectacular failure to warn of terrorist attacks on 9-11 by constantly warning of "potential terrorist action." Which makes for kind of an interesting public relations gimmick (the type Hoover's FBI used to specialize in in lieu of much actual crime fighting) since, as long as there are no attacks, it's impossible to tell if attacks were really planned or if the FBI's just trying to reassure us (and the Congress that authorizes their budget) they're looking out for our interests after all.
So is Larry Ellison, multi-billionaire and owner of the Oracle Corporation, the database and networking giant that numbers the CIA among its clients. Ellison's now calling for national identity cards, a favored but never instituted gimmick of the far right in the 60s. Back then they were intended to put the kibosh on civil unrest; that they seriously open the door to fascism (not to mention the inherent corruption that accompanies fascism) doesn't seem to matter to Republicans like Pennsylvania's George Gekas or, more frighteningly, supposedly liberal Democrats like House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. Stanford University law professor Tom Campbell has pointed out identity cards exist for the sole purpose of allowing government to compel citizens to produce them. But there's big money in them: a huge new bureaucracy will be needed for producing them, and a huge potential black market (there's already a huge black market in forged identification) would render them completely useless except as a tool for police harassment. I've heard the argument that identity cards would only be a "wartime" measure to be abandoned when things got better, but temporary solutions have a habit of becoming permanent when the government's involved. Anyone ever hear of income tax?
But this is the sort of tripe politicians resort to. What's Ellison's excuse? He's offering to provide the software for them free. And his generosity has nothing at all to do with linking his company even more closely with the federal government, I'm sure.
Speaking of the CIA, I guess it's a big TV year for them. After decades of being portrayed as sleazy (if not criminal) manipulators, they're the heroic focus of CBS's THE AGENCY and pivotal, apparently benign players in ABC's ALIAS. I'd love to review these but I made the mistake, on the recommendation of a slew of FREAKS AND GEEKS fans, of watching Fox's UNDECLARED by F&G creator Judd Apatow last week. Two major plotlines in the story: several of the co-eds get credit cards and decide to cash them out and get rich computer day trading in the stock market, and several others ride the easy road to scholastic success by hiring someone to write term papers for them. Two year olds could figure out the stunning plot turns of these reputedly humorous cautionary tales well in advance; you can probably write the whole episode in your head just from the above description. So UNDECLARED managed to kill me on network TV for this season.
Now I have to critique shows by how many minutes I stuck with them. ALIAS: 14 minutes. Lemme get this straight: she thought this secret organization was the CIA, so now she's double agenting for the CIA to undermine the bad guys (but doing bad stuff for the CIA when she thought it was the CIA was all right because they're the good guys?) and it turns out the CIA's only other sleeper inside is her estranged father? How cute is that? Waaaaay too, and I'm somehow not surprised this came from THIRTYSOMETHING'S Ken Olin and the creator of the WB's FELICITY, complete with the hairstyle, if none of the balls, of RUN LOLA RUN. La Femme Nikita must be rolling over in her grave. UPN's ENTERPRISE: 8 minutes. The WB's MEN, WOMEN AND DOGS: 3 minutes. NBC's SCRUBS: 5 minutes. CBS's ACCORDING TO JIM: 90 seconds. ABC's THIEVES: 7 minutes. The WB's REBA: 2 minutes, 30 seconds. I couldn't even bring myself to sample NBC's BOB PATTERSON (the remake of BYE BYE BIRDIE a few years ago killed me on Jason Alexander forever) or THE AGENCY, and I keep forgetting ABC's THIEVES is even on.
But HBO's BAND OF BROTHERS is finally getting good, eschewing the earlier rampant pyrotechnics, Yankee chatter and anonymous bodies being mowed down with more personal stories whittling away at any notion of the "glamour" of war (though it's a little weird after reading SGT. ROCK as a kid to see stories of the real Easy Co). Last week's was the first episode that showed the series' potential, focusing on an army medic whose spirit is drained by the horrors he experiences, and this week's was particularly good, with series regular Donnie Wahlberg as a first sergeant trying desperately to hold the company together when they get saddled with an incompetent commander on the eve of a major action. Wahlberg, once of the pop group New Kids On The Block, has turned into an amazingly good actor, and there was more genuine emotion in this one episode than in the last five seasons of E.R. And I've never seen anything on TV before quite like the way the trees exploded under German barrages. That episode should be required viewing for anyone who has the idiocy to think fighting in a war would be cool. And remember: it's all reputedly true.
For those who keep track of these things, the first show cancelled in the new season was CBS's DANNY, Daniel Stern's sitcom. Never saw it. The second is now ABC's WHAT ABOUT JOAN?, and ABC is desperately trying to resuscitate the dead-on-arrival BOB PATTERSON by bumping it to Wednesday night to follow THE DREW CAREY SHOW until the audience comes to accept it. Maybe we'll be lucky and it'll kill 20/20 the way it was killing PHILLY. (Not that PHILLY needs much help.)
This week's comics:
COLOSSAL ERROR ONE-SHOT is a black and white midi-comic (too small for a standard comic, too big for a mini-comic) from Rooster Press, Box 7100, San Diego CA 92167 ($1.75 postpaid.) Yet another superhero parody (starring Rat Fink and Slash) but... this one's pretty good. David Hedgecock wrote and drew it with inks by Joe Gravel. The story's nothing special but the dialogue's pleasantly conversational and generally stays clear of histrionics, while the art's very reminiscent of early John Byrne or Joe Staton. (Yeah, there was a point where their styles had similarities.) Hedgecock could be a talent to watch.
From Brad Sibberson at Inept Concepts (Box 23154, Toledo OH 43623) comes MR. SATANISM #1 ($2.75) and ($2.00). The art's simplistic, but that's not the show here: cantankerous former comic book star and rock idol Mr. Satanism, whether he's trying to score drugs or helping the Beatles dig up John Lennon's corpse, is a funny guy. Plus Sibberson seems to have actually read things other than comic books...
Cyberosia Publishing (129 Highland Ave Suite 4, Somerville MA 02143) sent FRIGHTENING CURVES ($12.95) by Anthony Johnston and Aman Chaudhary and APORIATICA (can't find a price for it) by Marcel Guldemond. Actual books, with lovely covers and really nice production values. FRIGHTENING CURVES is a prose novel of occult evil in London, and, sorry, Anthony, but it's going to be some time before I get a chance to read it. I did want to mention, though, the gorgeous and plentiful illustrations by Aman Chaudhary. Aman's poised to be a big breakthrough talent in this business, and I'm not just saying that because he's the artist of the forthcoming WHISPER graphic novel. It's not comics, but it's one of the best looking comics-related projects I've seen in some time. APORICATICA is comics, however: a collection of Guldemond's visionary, inventive comics work and an assortment of his poems and illustrations. Pulp-free, the work doesn't scream "intellectual" nor does it deny it, and while some may talk of reinventing comics, Guldemond does it. This week's Must Have book.
Also not comics, but related to them, is UNO FANTA – THE ART OF ASHLEY WOOD ($29.99), from Idea + Design Works, LLC (2645 Financial Court Suite E, San Diego CA 92117). A slender but handsome and exquisitely produced hardcover, it showcases a number of moody, bizarre and semi-erotic paintings by Wood as well as a handful of drawings in various media. Whether you'll want this or not depends on whether you like Wood's work, but he has come a long way stylistically since his early work at Marvel and other companies, becoming close to Bill Sienkiewicz's equal when it comes to dream realism. Which may be why Bill provides the preface. Nice job.
Return to the valley of Everything You Ever Needed To Know About Working In Comics: the following links have turned up.
Check out Mini-Comics.Com for Dan Wickline and Mike Hall's "Small Press 101," a series of articles on surviving as an indie publisher.
Elsewhere, Patrick Simmons provides an astute guide to computer lettering.
Thanks to Rich Watson and Dara Naraghi for bringing these to our attention.
Finally, for Columbus Day, this week's non-fiction book: Omni writer Patrick Huyghe's COLUMBUS WAS LAST (Hyperion Books, 1992). By now, pretty much everyone grudgingly admits to European incursion into the Americas before Columbus (he can still lay claim to opening the hemisphere to Western Civilization, however) and Huyghe's book postulates a seemingly endless stream of Japanese, Chinese, Romans, Polynesians, Phoenicians, Celts, Vikings, Africans, Italians, Hebrews and Portuguese who landed on or colonized the continents up to 7000 years ago, well before Chris sailed for India on Isabel's pawned jewelry. Some of the evidence is more compelling than other, but if Huyghe's laundry list is even half correct, a hell of a lot of textbooks will have to be rewritten, along with our now-centric view of the ancient world.
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. 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 enjoy PERMANENT DAMAGE, check out our brother column, Larry Young's LOOSE CANNON.
If you want to know something about me, you can probably find the answer at Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions.