Issue #50

I'm torn over color in comics these days. Used to be the question was just whether to have four color or full color, and those were really functions of the printing process. Then the "sophisticated" colorists came into vogue, guys like Matt Hollingsworth who work heavily in non-primary colors and turned that into a style. (When we were working on CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN together at DC, I'd kiddingly dared Matt to use a primary color just once. And once he did!) Then there are black and white comics, which in the comics market are usually taken to translate into "too cheap/poor to afford color." Aside from a short flare-up of popularity in the '80s, the b&w comic has long been the redheaded stepchild of the comics industry, albeit the semi-affordable option for budding talent and publishers. A lot of this had to do with content, specifically our fixation with superheroes. Face it: superheroes exist to be gaudy, they're unconvincing if they're not, and it's hard to be gaudy without color. Preferably gaudy color, but even the muted "sophisticated" style comes off as gaudy when it's in BATMAN. (Think I'm exaggerating? Pick up a recent issue of DETECTIVE COMICS and see for yourself.)

This has now changed. Blame it on manga.

I don't know whether it was accidental or intentional, but when Marvel released their ESSENTIALS trade paperbacks, they lucked out. Fans had been clamoring for something like them for years, all those Silver Age classic Kirby, Ditko, etc. stories collected in an affordable package. Just not in black and white. I remember the screaming when Marvel started issuing them. And the things sold well, not only in comics shops (where fans who wanted the material swallowed their anger over the "substandard" package) but in bookstores. Maybe especially in bookstores. Where the comics world continues to turn on its head.

Possibly because manga is the big seller on bookstore comics trade paperback racks (Viz and Tokyo Pop together easily outdistance their nearest competition, DC, in bookstore sales), or perhaps because it's books like MAUS that get touted in the literati reviews that fuel bookstore sales, the bookstore market loves black and white. It seems, in the bookstore market, color, virtually any color at all, is associated with "comic books" and vaguely frowned on, the way black and white is basically frowned on in the comics market. B&W is associated with sophistication.

Which, as trade paperbacks and by extension bookstore sales become an increasingly important factor in the economic survival of comics companies, makes for an interesting dilemma: which market do we decide to serve primarily, and is there a way to serve both?

Because – here's where Marvel got really lucky – draining the coloring out of most regular comics and printing them in black and white more often than not just makes them look like crap. It points up how much many comics artists have come to depend on colorists, and how important (and generally underpaid) the craft of coloring is to comic books.

As long as there's a comic shop market, coloring isn't going away. The bookstore market doesn't require it, and, from the looks of things, to some extent punishes it. So it seems to me that if artists and publishers are going to play the new comics economy smartly, a new aesthetic is called for: art drawn specifically to stand on its own in black and white, yet which allows for color. So two editions can be published, one for each market, if desired. For bookstore editions, the black and white art would look crisp and sophisticated, and the color editions would give comics fans a reason to buy the pamphlets instead of holding out for collected editions that very well might not come if the pamphlets don't sell, procrastination easily being misread by publishers as disinterest. I suspect it also demands a renewed interest in different styles of black and white art, specifically returning to the more impressionistic extreme contrast styles of artists like Alex Toth and redeveloping different wash and grayscale techniques as standards of comics art.

But this also means re-educating the comics audience to a different art style. Which isn't that difficult, but it does take time, effort and patience. Smaller companies like Oni Press and AiT/PlanetLar are already moving that way, of necessity, due to their b&w book publishing but many other smaller publishers haven't caught on yet. It'd be nice to see one of the large companies like Marvel or DC catch on as well. They can't always depend on just being lucky.

A review extravangza this week, since I have to get this pile of books off my desk.

[Digital Webbing Presents #4]DIGITAL WEBBING PRESENTS #4 (31 Westford St, Haverhill MA 01832; $2.95) sports an attractive cover by Sanford Greene, Garry McKee II and Hi-Fi Color, as well as the assorted contents by this month's Not-Quite-Ready-For-Prime-Time-Players. "Amber & Prey" is a mildly amusing postmodern superhero parody written by Joe Morris – and I have to repeat this for anyone doing superhero parodies nowadays: it's been done, and you're shooting fish in a barrel – but with a little more practice artist Hannu Lipponen could start getting some Mike Allred style action; he seems to be a big influence on the art. Artist Scott Lemein needs a little seasoning and confidence in his pencils as well, but he combines an intriguing inking/wash style with interesting page layouts simulating a maze as he illustrates writer Chris Kirby's intelligently written "Human Race," a sobering meditation on mortality. Jeremy Fiest's story, "Pep Talk," about a frustrated trucker with dreams he can't pursue, is underdeveloped to say the least (not surprising given the allotted space) and not particularly well served by Ray Dillon's uneven, black-heavy art. That Rodrigo Pereira's art on "Courier: A Day At The Office," Kel Nuttall's fairly nonsensical action flick of a strip, is published here shows just how the business is changed in the last half-decade; six years ago, he'd have been snapped up by one of the Image branches. Again, Pereira's work is interesting and almost there, but he needs to stabilize the look of his work, getting comfortable with perspective, and getting the various elements of his art to work together instead of fighting each other for attention. I saw Dara Naraghi and Steve Black 's "A Night At Oldfield's" in photocopy a few months ago, and here it looks expressionistic, a vast improvement. The slice of life piece is nicely written too, more an illustrated story than a comic strip, giving the impression that Naraghi might ultimately be more comfortable as a novelist, but it's a good job. Rounding out the issue is Stephen St. Laurent's "Blammo the Space Monkey in Constant Craving," nicely drawn by Rajiv Golay though it didn't knock me out. The sci-fi story involves an alien race testing the reactions of a human (apparently the titular "space monkey) but appears to be only a segment, so it's hard to get a grasp on it. Aside from annoying scifi-isms like "For Fant's Sake!" it gets its point across, but really tells us so little it's hard to get interested. I'll have to reserve judgment until the next segment.

Shannon Wheeler has published a new issue of TOO MUCH COFFEE MAN (Adhesive Press, Box 14549, Portland OR 97293; $4.95), this one focusing on independent magazines as well as featuring all the usual satire, interviews (including one with the seemingly ubiquitous Brian Michael Bendis), reviews and comic strips by the likes of Tony Millionaire, Jhonen Vasquez and Wheeler himself. What can I say? Intelligence, irreverence, humor so dry you could make martinis with it: what's not to like? This still reminds me of this really cool magazine called WET I used to buy religiously, unconsciously hip and savvy without rubbing your face in it. So why aren't you buying TOO MUCH COFFEE MAN religiously? Go get a copy now!

[Oddball Comics Cards]Scott Shaw!'s been running ODDBALL COMICS here at Comic Book Resources for years now, but most people don't know it was a 36 card trading card set before that, published by the gone and lamented Kitchen Sink Press. The cards are just as entertaining as the column, with basically the same format: cover on the front, commentary on the back, with great lost comics like ATOMIC WAR, TEENAGE TEMPTATIONS, CRIMES BY WOMEN and John Davis' favorite superhero, ZIP-JET. It turns out Scott still has copies for sale, so if you want one contact him via his column. Hilarious. I just have one oddball question: are "trading cards" you can only buy in complete sets really trading cards? Who needs to trade for what they're missing when you have them all? [Ed. Note: The cards can also be purchased online in the CBR Store.]

Matt Bellisle's UNDERGROUND: EVENTUALLY A MEMORY (1758 Surrey Trail, Green Bay WI 54313: $2) (possibly with art by someone called Italiano, there's no way to be sure from the packaging) is the highest tech mini-comic I've ever seen. The art style is practically rotoscoped, the printing is fabulous, the paper is excellent, and the story plays like a short French movie about a bank robber fatally in love with a woman he never quite meets. Terrific stuff.

Ralph Mathieu of Alternate Reality Comics, one of Las Vegas' great comics shops (we have at least two great ones, believe it or not), slipped me LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN Vol. 2 #2 ahead of time the other day, and it continues to be a striking piece of work. Predominantly blacks and blues after all the Martian reds of the first issue, it's a slow-paced exercise demonstrating the League's utter helplessness in the face of H.G. Wells' Martian invaders. Part of it is a virtual replay of the first contact in WAR OF THE WORLDS, which only underscores the notion that the League will be unable to change anything. Unlike most scenarios of this sort in comics, this focuses on the psyches of the title characters, all of whom are well aware of their helplessness. Even Hyde has his moments, and the best line of the book: "Hunh. Long way to come just to conquer Woking." Very little traditional action to speak of, but a good cliffhanger. Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill still have it.

Jason Arnett's THE STONE MAN (partially inked by Ron Fontes; AJasonT Press, Box 44-2369, Lawrence KS 66044; $3) is an epic (24 pages!) mini-comic involving a man's reconciliation with his daughter. Not a bad job, but Jason needs to tighten both his pacing and his dialogue, and I know it's something he'll grow out of with practice, but the traumas involved smack a little too much of soap opera, without any particularly significant revelations to justify them.

Holy Nightmare Productions live up to their name on so many levels... Just kidding. The company, basically writer Michael Bradley and artist Justin Moore, sent two mini-comics – an sf prologue called ARMADA DREAMING (50¢) and the heroic fantasy DREAD RECKONING ($1.50) – and there's just no other way to say it: underwritten and way underdrawn, with no discernable ideas, they're just not good. (On the other hand, guys: everyone's got to start somewhere.)

When you become a critic, you have to accustom yourself to slagging the work of people you like personally, since it's only the work you review and not the person. Fortunately, such distinctions are unnecessary with my pal Jonathan Vankin's VERTIGO POP: TOKYO (Vertigo; $2.95), wonderfully drawn by Seth Fisher. (Speaking of coloring, Chris Chuckry's lovely bright-but-muted colors really separate this book from the pack.) With just the faintest hint of autobiography, an American enthralled by Japanese technology moves to Japan and becomes entangled with a Japanese girl dreaming of pop stardom and enraptured by all things American. There's a subplot involving the Yakuza as well, but the real plot in this story is culture clash. No idea where this one's going, but it's already quite a ride, and it's great to see Vertigo breaking mold a little. There was a time when that was all they did; it's about time that time came again.

MISSPENT YOUTH ($1.50 @ bought from website; $3 for all three) is an anthology of work by University of Virginia students, apparently dating from '98-'99. The issues aren't particularly long on art, though some of it is very minimalistically effective, but it's pretty long on story and ideas (particularly Emily Costello's striking work, Sean Polan's college boy hijinx strips and the "Captain Fetus & Spermboy" strip, which, for some reason, I just thought was hilarious) albeit of the sort that would most interest college kids. Though there's the occasional feature that manages to muddle through without any ideas at all. There's way too much in these issues to dissect them feature by feature, so let's just give MISSPENT YOUTH a summary judgment of "worth checking out."

[Scars]Warren Ellis has a new book coming out from Avatar Press, drawn by Jacen Burrows, called SCARS, so Avatar has released a sampler (75¢) to publicize it (much as they recently released a MY FLESH IS COOL preview book, if I can pimp my own product for a second). SCARS seems an almost precognitively appropriate work for this American summer, about cops being emotionally torn apart while tracking down a child killer. Warren's writing is almost always effective, and rarely more effective than when he's writing psychological horror, and juxtaposed against Burrows' clean art it's even more horrific. And all that's just from the sampler! It makes me fear for the actual comic.

Randy Lander has made an internet name for himself reviewing comics, and now he puts his own neck on the chopping block in AFTER THE FACTS (c/o Stickley & Jones, Box 571306, Dallas TX 75357-1306; $3.99). Brave man. Lander's feature, "Systems Failure," is crippled by David Farabee's sloppy artwork, and while the dialogue is probably appropriate to the story, about two men attempting to escape a disabled spaceship as an alien enemy closes in, it still sounds like STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE outtakes, while the story ultimately has no point to make. I haven't a clue what Randy was trying to say with it. Robert Turnage's "After The Facts, Pt. 1" at least has some point to make, but is so dragged out that the 20 pages seem to take an eternity, despite the on average minimal dialogue. Why do people insist on trying to tell stories about people who wouldn't interest you for five minutes (and I'm not talking about people you like, I'm talking about people who have something – anything! - interesting about them) if they sat down next to you in a bar?

Initially a bit off-putting, James Woodward's THESE THINGS HAPPEN, ACT 1 turns out to be pretty funny, poking holes in all sorts of current manias from talk shows to the New World Order, and the ink-and-zip art is pleasantly cartoony. Keep your eyes open for it.

WELCOME TO DIGGSVILLE (Heyday Comics; $2.95) is another anthology, I'm guessing out of Australia. (Not to squelch creativity or anything like that, but while it's true that anyone can draw comics, it's not necessarily true that everyone ought to.) But Christian Read wins me over immediately with his meditations on Henry Rollins and punk rock audiences in "Dude In A Coat." Scott Fraser's crime comedy "King Hell Freaks" gets off to a good start before going nowhere, but in this case the art (I'm presuming by Doug Holgate) more than makes up for it. The other features are pretty forgettable, unfortunately. Give me a whole comic written by Christian Reed or drawn by Doug Holgate and you've got something.

Joel Priddy's PULPATOON PILGRIMAGE (AdHouse Books, 1224 Greycourt Ave, Richmond VA 23227-4042; $12.95) is one of those maddening works I really want to like, but I'm just not sure. I will say I really love the format, production and design, and the art's engagingly simplistic in the tradition of GOODBYE CHUNKY RICE and SHUCK, but the "Waiting For Godot meets The Wizard Of Oz" vignettes that pass for the story don't quite add up to anything. I know a virtue of creation is getting a look into other people's psyches, and I know there's some vaguely mythological underpinning to all this, but ultimately it should connect to something, and it just doesn't. Barring that, it's actually quite charming, which is what really makes it maddening.

Good grief. I'm out of time again and I've still got a million books to go. Looks like another review extravaganza next week...

One political note: heard the Veep on TV this morning declaring why we ought to invade Iraq. Among other things he noted the suspect reasoning of those opponents who believes that, yes, Saddam Hussein was dangerous, so let's wait until he's even more dangerous to do anything about him. Which I agree is suspect reasoning, about as suspect as the Administration's own reasoning on the subject. The Hand Puppet himself has declared his belief that any incursion into Iraq would be a "short" war, presumably to beat the standard time limits on Congressionally unsanctioned war. Which begs a few questions. The Administration, despite statements by Arab nations, insists the other Middle Eastern countries would be thrilled to see an Saddam-free Iraq and won't give the USA any trouble at all, but, given the long term history of the region, that's a longshot assessment (you might want to call it wishful thinking) and the entry of other countries into the war in defense of Iraq would lengthen the war precipitously. Terrain is another factor that could bog us down in a lengthy war. (I know it turned out to not be as much an obstacle in Afghanistan as predicted, but we're not out of there yet either and won't be for a long time.) I suspect the Administration isn't really banking so much on a brief war as on the willingness of the American people to support the war effort all the way to victory once we're in there, but they banked on that when they went into Vietnam as well, and look what happened there.

The biggest flaw in their reasoning, though, is exactly their stated reason for invading. The theory goes that Saddam Hussein must be removed because he has chemical and biological weapons, and before long he'll have nuclear weapons. If he hasn't got them, the Hand Puppet is trying to pull a Gulf Of Tonkin, manufacturing an invasion excuse where none exists. If Hussein has stockpiled chemical and biological weapons, an American invasion will certainly prompt him to use them. Unless he has precious few of them, how does that add up to a short war?

I want to thank everyone who sent in art samples for consideration. I'll be making up my mind over the next week, but, in the meantime, I've taking the liberty of passing your samples on to a couple other editors who asked for a look at that. They've promised not to contact anyone until after I've made a decision, but just because you don't hear from me (and you won't, unless you've been selected) doesn't mean you won't hear from anyone.

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.

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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. Be warned that this site is functionally dead – I've switched to a different server and am prepping a new page – but it's still up and the backstory details are still germane even if the news page is a bit dated.

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