The counterman's accusing glare told Colter he had been made, so he dropped the act, walked to the counter and produced his badge. HOMELAND SECURITY, it read, with a metallic patch with an American Eagle in the lower corner, like a credit card; the patch supposedly made counterfeiting impossible, though Colter had learned how to counterfeit the cards in basic. His friend Tommy had in fact put himself through training by black marketing HS i.d. counterfeits. "License," Coulter said curtly. He hated solo store rousts, wished his backup wasn't five blocks away vidchipping filmgoers an R-rated action thriller. The counterman fidgeted a cracked laminated paper square from a hook on the side of the cash register and handed it over. Colter looked at it without interest. Scanning licenses was just a formality. They, too, were easily and frequently counterfeited.
He handed the card back and said, "Client list."
The counterman flinched. "The owner has it," he replied sullenly, sounding trapped. A tell he was hiding something. Colter had learned in his three years on the job to pick up on these things, his life often depending on it. Even after twenty years under the Homeland Security Force, there were players who thought they could escape detection, but in Colter's experience they always gave themselves away. It was fear that did it: the fear of getting caught.
If you're afraid of getting caught, he thought, why do it?
He flicked open the vidphone on his shoulder, and turned his head to look and speak into it, away from the counterman but close enough for him to hear. "Colter, Del, Sgt. 77354, requesting data draw Chevalier Books, 997 Windward, owner specs, over." A hold message flashed onto the LCD screen. From the corner of his eyes, Colter caught the drain of blood from the counterman's face. He clapped the phone shut as the counterman – Colter didn't have to wait for confirmation now to know he was the store's owner – bolted for the wall. A hidden door swung inward where the counterman pushed, and swung back the instant he passed. Colter kicked a thick book across the room, and it hit the floor and skidded to block the closing door, slowing it just long enough for Colter to put his shoulder to it.
Pushing past the door, he drew his silenced .380. It had been holstered with the hammer cocked back, a shell in the chamber and the safety on, and as he drew, his thumb brushed the safety off. The inner room was thick with dust, and what the counterman had kicked up in his hurry hovered in the air, clogging Colter's throat. He glanced at the books: political philosophy, comparative religion, experimental fiction. He hadn't read any of them, but recognized titles from lists the HSF made recruits memorize, highbrow stuff only available with special permits for college courses and think tanks, not the sort of thing an average citizen needed to read. One wall was piled high with bootleg sonichips and vidchips. From an inset built under a stairwell came the soft whir of a hard drive: the unregistered computer HSF had detected when it burped the wrong code while accessing the web using a shadow DNS. Everyone who bought a book or music or a vid now had to swipe their i.d. card through a register to finalize the purchase, recording both buyer and purchase. Every shop was required to turn over such lists on demand, but there was the owner, frantically tapping at the keyboard, trying to erase his lists. Presumably he had already disabled the backup.
Colter yelled "Freeze!" in the officious unnerving way they'd taught at academy, and damn if the owner didn't freeze, finger poised trembling above the key which, when struck, would complete the erasure. He moved his hands away from the keyboard and raised them alongside his head, turning toward Colter to plead "Please..."
This was the part of the job Colter truly hated, but protocol was protocol, and those who broke protocol paid for it. Besides, the man was, at minimum, a criminal, and by bringing a computer into it he had automatically reclassified himself as a terrorist. Everyone knew the law, even if the penalties for breaking it weren't widely advertised.
Retreating a step to avoid the blowback, Colter shot him twice in the head. The man twitched with each shot, then fell, tears bobbing on the rims of his dead eyes. Colter didn't bother to check the body. It wasn't something anyone got up from. As he made his way out of the store, he opened his vidphone again to see the man's face there, and was relieved he'd gotten the right man. He placed another call to HSF and asked for a clean-up team, then turned the sign in the window to "closed" and locked the door behind him. No one would have heard the shots, and the public would ever know what had gone on inside the bookstore. It would be just one more in an ocean of failed businesses, and there was no need to trouble the public with the terrible costs paid for their liberty.
In a review last week, I said the art in one book was exactly what you think of when someone says "Image comic," which raised the ire of a few Image fans who felt I was being unjust to Image books. From my point of view, there was no insult intended. The "Image style" was codified by Jim Lee and especially Rob Liefeld, and its most perfect modern form can be found in J. Scott Campbell's DANGER GIRL. That's not casting aspersions on the style, it's just stating a fact. That is what people think of when they think of "the Image style."
Yet there's no denying that term is an anachronism. Neither Jim nor Rob have been connected to Image for years now, and the company now hosts a much wider variety of content and styles than in its formative years. Image marketing director Eric Stephenson was kind enough to send over a selection of some of their best books:
- LEAVE IT TO CHANCE by James Robinson and Paul Smith. The first series has now been collected in a gorgeous supersized hardcover, ridiculously inexpensive at $14.95. This is a rare nice book, one you could let your kids read without being embarrassed to read it yourself, and the only place Paul's art ever looked better is in the "Lockheed The Dragon" story we're having published in X-MEN UNLIMITED #34 in January.
- POWERS, Brian Bendis & Michael Oeming's breakthrough semi-post-superhero strip about cops in a superhero world, drawn in a Tim Sale-does-Kevin O'Neill style.
- AGE OF BRONZE, Eric Shanower's very illustrative retelling of the Trojan War, one of the truly stunning achievements of modern comics.
- Jim Mahfood's alt-comic STUPID COMICS.
- Matthew Cashel & Jeremy Haun's very strange PARADIGM, drawn in a stark semi-realistic black and white style much more reminiscent of STARMAN than WILDC.A.T.S
- The photorealistic ATHENA INC by Brian Haberlin and Jay Anacleto, also told in an unusual manner, with all the dialogue in captions, notated like a screenplay.
- BASTARD SAMURAI, by Michael Oeming and Miles Gunter, drawn in a unique Harvey Kurtzman-meets-manga style, with some Teddy Kristiansen thrown in.
- The Mignola-esque HOLY TERROR, by Jason Caskey, Phil Hester and Jim Woodyard, what seems to a horror story set against the backdrop of professional wrestling.
- Mark Ricketts' crime novel NOWHERESVILLE, drawn in a style that stands up well alongside Eduardo Risso's 100 BULLETS.
And all the rest: Michael Oeming's BULLETPROOF MONK; Joe Linsner's DAWN; Frank Cho's lovely Frazetta-esque LIBERTY MEADOWS; David Mack's chameleonic KABUKI; Dan Jolley & Tony Harris's OBERGEIST; Todd DeZago and Mike Wieringo's TELLOS. Then there's Eric Johnson and Arvid Nelson's REX MUNDI, mentioned last week.
Most of these books have only two things in common: they don't resemble "the Image style" in the slightest, and, at minimum, they ain't bad. Even of the superhero comics Eric sent, Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker's SUPERPATRIOT has art more in the 2000 AD mode, and SAVAGE DRAGON is what SAVAGE DRAGON has always looked like. (Again, that's just a fact, not a critique.) NOBLE CAUSES more resembles a post-Image DC superhero book. Of everything sent, only Fiona Avery and Billy Tan's WITCHBLADE: OBAKEMONO looks like an "Image comic."
This, paradoxically, may be Image's current problem. Despite recent noises about recreating a superhero line, Image has clearly shifted from a "universe" company to a "creator's" company. In a marketplace where the status of the creator has been widely debased in favor of "hot characters" over the past few years, I don't think Image has managed to get its new position across. "The Image style" was such an identifiable quantity that it has been easy to reduce it to a cliché, but the sheer variety of styles that have replaced it haven't brought that level of easy recognition factor with them. I do believe Image can take a new central position in the business again if they want to, but they need to generate at least the illusion of a strong focus. (If I had any specific ideas as to how, I'd be doing it. But give me a couple weeks.) They have a lot of great books. What they need now is that It! book that will draw all eyes to the company, and let everyone quickly and decisively rethink what an "Image book" is.
(I'll be reviewing some of these books in more depth in future weeks.)
Is it Patriot Day again already?
In case you hadn't heard, the Hand Puppet just officially made Sept. 11 "Patriot Day." It seems a little weird to claim the victims of the Trade Towers as "patriots," given that many of them weren't even American and those that were didn't have any choice in their martyrdom, just as it feels strange to read the Hand Puppet declaring "We are a people dedicated to the triumph of freedom and democracy over evil and tyranny" at the same time his attorney general is going whole hog to gut civil liberties and the White House is insisting on their right to absolute obsessive secrecy, from Congress, the courts and the electorate, on all matters, but we'll let both of those go, for now.
As America – at least the media – frenziedly meditates on how the last year has changed America's culture and spirit, today also spells the end of the first year of this column, which began with a 9-11 essay that ruffled a few feathers at the time:
"And there are still things that bother me about the attacks. Like how they could happen in the first place. Facts pile up, and make no sense. Known terrorists were not only in the country for a year, but they took lessons on flying jumbo jets. What? How could the FBI be inept enough to know absolutely nothing about any of them one day, yet capable enough to have full dossiers on all of them, including all their movements for that year, less than 24 hours later, even before bodies had been found, let alone identified?
I was at a friend's home on Wednesday evening, watching a tech channel, when a military guy came on to talk about all the things that would need to be done to prevent a recurrence of the attacks. They all had to do with things the FBI and CIA have been trying to push through for years, starting with a loosening of rules on wiretapping, and providing the government with encryption codes so they can read anyone's e-mail at will, and identity cards, and various other measures that all add up to one thing: great restrictions on American civil liberties, justified by "a time of crisis."
Now I'm prone to the paranoid view, partly because it usually makes sense. And as I was listening to this guy, a thought I didn't want coalesced in my head.
They let it happen.
I don't mean the FBI or CIA facilitated a plot to crash jumbo jet liners into major skyscrapers and landmarks and kill thousands of people while disrupting air travel across the country for days. Both agencies have done some nutty things in their time but it would take a lot of very seriously disturbed people to allow that. I mean they figured on a plane hijacking or two, and they looked the other way, because such a "threat" (and such a tiny, tiny threat such a scenario looks now) would give them the ammo to push a "anti-terrorist, law-enforcement" agenda that they've failed time and time again to get through Congress. It wouldn't be the first time an event was set up to justify a response."
Thing is: the more I've seen over the last year, the more convinced I am I was right. The FBI and CIA started off insisting there was no way they could have anticipated the attacks, no way they could have prevented them, yet that story has been shattered time and time again. Just this week, two more reports came out: The FBI had an informant who was a hijacker's roommate, and even the Taliban tried to warn us. Recently it got out that the spooky (in more ways than one) Condaleezza Rice had briefed the Hand Puppet on an imminent terrorist attack well over a month before they struck. Meanwhile, the White House insists the American public has no need to know who knew what when – it will just "hamper" the war on terrorism is the reasoning – and whatever investigation Congress holds on the matter, to the extent the White House cooperates with it at all, is behind closed doors. Why? Other questions remain: why didn't the US Air Force intercept the hijacked jets in the 90 minutes or so between when they went off course and impact? An examination of the scenario shows whole chains of command breaking down. Was it systemic failure in the face of an incident too horrible to anticipate (though it was anticipated, at least on Fox's short-lived LONE GUNMEN) or was it instituted?
Again, I'm not suggesting anyone "allowed" terrorists to turn 747s into flying bombs. That might be the sort of thing comic book villains do, but even the most cynical real-life bastard would draw the line at that. What I envision is someone hearing the possibility of a good old-fashioned hijacking – take over a plane, fly it to some other airport, threaten passengers if demands aren't met, that sort of thing – and figuring it could be used to galvanize an American public less than supportive of a president elected by one vote (5-4). It's not unheard of. If true, that it got a little out of hand would be an understatement, but the results were the same. Who benefited from 9-11, after all?
Certainly administration foreign policy got a temporary boost. The Hand Puppet's people had drawn up plans for invading Afghanistan in June '01, so that can no longer be seen as a "response" to the attacks, though it's conceivable the attacks were some sort of pre-emptive counterstrike, and were used as a justification for a preconceived military action. (The current talk of war with Iraq has the same preconceived tone about it, though with justification harder to come by; curiously, the administration has stopped claiming an Iraqi tie to terrorism among their arguments.) If the Hand Puppet (or, more likely, corporate collaborator with Iraq Dick Cheney) always intended to invade Afghanistan, what was our true objective there? (Since we never did bring in Bin Laden and no one even speaks of that as a goal anymore.) If they did "allow" the 9-11 hijackings to generate a rationale for preexisting policy, will they push their luck by "allowing" a second incident that will "tie in" to the invasion of Iraq?
On the homefront, the main effect of 9-11 was to push through an omnibus of anti-civil liberty measures the FBI and CIA had been trying without success to get through Congress for decades. We have been told, time and time again in the last year, that in order to protect our freedom we must destroy it. That only people with something to hide would object to the FBI tapping their phone calls, monitoring their faxes, reading their e-mail, and collecting lists of what they borrowed from the library or bought at a book or record store or rented from a video store. Or people who paid with a credit card when they ordered a delivery pizza. (The latter is on a list of activities the attorney general apparently considers "suspicious.") By declaring wartime without declaring war, the administration has created for itself the power to suspend the Constitution at will, not only indefinitely incarcerating foreign nationals in the USA without identifying them, but declaring Americans to be "enemy combatants" (in the case of Jose Padilla, apparently not without much evidence, since Ashcroft has backed off from his early "dirty bomb" claims, leaving the impression that Padilla was chosen to set a precedent, not because he was actually involved with anything) and holding them indefinitely as well, without legal counsel or due process. Hey, they could do it to you, pal. Even if you stand wholeheartedly behind the Hand Puppet, Augie, this creates a precedent any treehugger administration that comes in can use. (In the War On Pollution, those who don't recycle are working for the enemy.) In stripping themselves of oversight, the administration creeps (or plunges gleefully, depending on your interpretation) toward the tyranny the Hand Puppet himself says we're dedicated to crushing. Is he schizoid, or does he just subscribe to the long-cherished belief of many politicians that if you use the right rhetoric you can get away with whatever you like?
The upshot is that this is how America has changed. As I predicted in the first column last year, there has not been a huge surge in terrorism since 9/11; the possibility – I would say the probability - remains that it was the swan song of international terrorism and not a signal of its renaissance. (Today we'll all hold our breaths, I'm sure, but I suspect we think more of anniversaries than Al Qaeda does.) We rattle sabers at Iraq, poo-pooing those aspects of Muslim culture that will almost certainly result in widespread war in the Middle East should we unilaterally invade that country, thus pissing away whatever international good will 9/11 brought us. (It's hard to remember now, but it was only a year ago that, for the first time since WWII, practically everyone loved America.) Our greatest crises since 9/11 have been economic, and studies now indicate 9/11 had far less impact on the economy than touted, which didn't stop many industries from capitalizing on it by laying off workers and using it as an excuse to clear out deadwood. Corporate scandals have had far more impact on the economy, and on our national sense of well-being, and these resulted from behavior in play well before 9/11, supported, endorsed and even practiced by many players now in the administration. (At least before it became apparent they could blow it off, at which point the Hand Puppet switched to a Tough Love approach.) If 9/11 had any real effects, they were social: pointless misdirected hatred and intolerance have gained ground, particularly against Muslims in this country or even those who resemble them; and politically the last year has exacerbated the "if you're not with us you're against us" mentality that has been promoted throughout the political spectrum since the '50s, particularly reflected in the White House's recurring admonition that if we don't want to play by their rules, we're aiding the terrorists. And you know what happens to "enemy combatants" now.
I don't expect any of this to last, really. The pendulum swings, and already it's swinging back. Last year I was the only one I knew of who suggested the attacks might have been "allowed," and now national news magazines, while they're not going that far, are demanding many questions be answered. But questions aren't something the Hand Puppet administration wants to hear. No one's really ever afraid of questions; they're only afraid of answers.
Meanwhile, we live in a land considerably less free than it was a year ago, though few of us have directly felt that yet, and it was us who did that, not the terrorists. There's no way in hell terrorists could beat the United States. Only we can do that, and so far we're letting the administration do a pretty good job of it.
The summer TV season is dead, Kelly Clarkson is our American Idol (Al Davison made the joke last week that contestants on the British version of the show are protesting because Americans actually chose someone who could sing, giving her an unfair advantage in any international competition) and the new Fall TV season is almost upon us. There are new shows that, on the surface, sound interesting enough to check out: BOOMTOWN (NBC, 10 PM Sunday) with Donnie Wahlberg, who was terrific in HBO's BAND OF BROTHERS; HAUNTED (UPN, 9 PM Tuesday), created and produced by my friend Andrew Cosby; WITHOUT A TRACE (CBS, 10 PM Thursday), a show I don't expect much from but it stars the always interesting Anthony LaPaglia (though I hated him in the recent film LANTANA, which I loathed, so please don't write it suggesting I catch it. I already caught it and feel like I could use a major dose of penicillin.); and the new Michael Mann show, ROBBERY HOMICIDE DIVISION (CBS, 10 PM Friday) with underrated professional mook Tom Sizemore.
But the big shootout this year will be for the 9 PM Wednesday timeslot: WEST WING (NBC) vs. THE AMAZING RACE (CBS) vs. THE BACHELOR (ABC) vs. BIRDS OF PREY (WB; based on the DC comic of the same name) vs. FASTLANE (Fox) vs. THE TWILIGHT ZONE (UPN, with Forrest Whitaker). My sentimental favorite here is the best game show ever, THE AMAZING RACE; that's what I'll be watching instead of taping. THE BACHELOR is already dead in the water as far as I'm concerned. WEST WING will undoubtedly win the hour, but it's what comes in #2 that'll be interesting to see.
Watched a film called HIGHWAY on DVD the other day, from New Line Home Entertainment, with Jared Leto and Jake Gyllenhaal as a couple Vegas trailer trash Gen-Xers on the run from mobsters and on the road to Seattle. Along the way they pick up Selma Blair and John McGinley and have various oddball adventures. An average road movie, in other words, though I'm a sucker for road movies, and Leto, Blair and Gyllenhaal are all very good with what's essentially nothing material(written and produced by the non-Malibu Scott Rosenberg, with the requisite amounts of toy violence and cheesy sex to offset what's essentially a platonic love story between two guys realizing it's time to exit childhood). It had a sort of parallel world feeling for me, but not because they were traveling the reverse of the route I took moving from Redmond to Las Vegas when I moved down here.
About a year ago, the local cable company screwed up my bill something fierce. It was easily corrected, but at the time they were running a special promotion on Showtime and gave me six free months in apology for the hassle. Aside from two or three things like Alison Anders' THINGS BEHIND THE SUN (terrific Don Cheadle and Kim Dickens performances there), Showtime tends to be a sea of jiggling stupidity. (You know how you can look at a show and tell what network it's on? All ABC sitcoms have exactly the same film quality, etc.? Same with Showtime and HBO. Even HBO's worst trash, like ARLISS and MIND OF A MARRIED MAN, looks classier than Showtime stuff, which reeks in content and style of soft core porn.) Showtime periodically tries new series, and one that popped up during my free stint was a ROUTE 66 reimagination called GOING TO CALIFORNIA, about two longtime small town Massachusetts friends going on the road to track down another friend, then head out to see California, a dream they'd shared ever since, I guess, they failed to realize that the Beach Boys happened forty years ago. Created, written and produced by the non-Malibu Scott Rosenberg. Like I said, I'm a sucker for a road movie, road TV show, whatever.
The real parallel world thing here is: three or four eps into GOING TO CALIFORNIA, our two heroes hear about "The Boy" in some hick outback, and go see "The Boy," an Elephant Man-like genetic freak whose aged mother sells tickets to people to see him in their barn so they can get the money together to move to this wonderful town in Florida where old circus people live out their days in peace and sunshine. The two take pity on "The Boy," and one decides to give the family lots of money (where the money comes from, I don't know) so they can move to their dream home, but, on arriving back at the farm, they find "The Boy" under attack by a gang of high school football players, and enter the fray swinging. All ends well, of course.
This scene is also played, not only beat for beat, not only virtually shot for shot, but line for line in an episode in HIGHWAY.
Self-plagiarism is truly a wonderful thing.
Still sorting through the various art submissions, complicated by one of my earlier choices momentarily coming out of the woodwork. The last time I did this sort of thing, I was appalled by the sheer crap people were submitting with pretenses toward "professional" work. This time the problem is the opposite: I can't believe how good some of this stuff is. Seven out of ten submissions are sensational. I had been under the impression I'd be lucky to find even one artist worth working with, but now I'm re-thinking my whole approach.
One note: Zlatko Milenkovic, please resend your samples. Somewhere between my computers they vanished. Thanks.
I'm also finally building the Paper Movies website, which will debut shortly, and as part of that I'll collecting the addresses of comics professional websites. (Meaning: websites of comics professionals, not fan sites about them. Contact points.) If you want to suggest any, please submit them on the Permanent Damage Message Board. Don't e-mail them to me. Thanks.
Still working on various graphic novels and generating film pitches, so it's back to work. See you next week.
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.