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Issue #54

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #54

An interesting discussion came up on the GRAPHIC VIOLENCE forum the other day. One correspondent, shocked by photos of violence in Israel, bemoaned the inability of comics to show what “real” violence looks instead of the sanitized “play violence” that comics love to the point of fetishism.

Certainly the question of what to represent when we represent “violence” (I’d like to reiterate that there’s no violence in comics to start with, or movies or TV or even photographs, though there may be visual representations of violence; a picture of a dog is not a dog) has nagged comics for a long time. Early comics could get pretty rough, though they rarely went beyond what was acceptable for movies at the time. Even Charles Biro’s crime comics, probably the roughest things seen pre-Comics Code in terms of an emotional impact of “violence,” weren’t particularly gruesomely drawn though gore was often suggested. EC upped the ante – spilled intestines and severed heads weren’t unusual fare there – but they were also the first real fetishistic company, with everything drawn so well and so lovingly (alongside stories that were largely tongue-in-cheek and projected a sense of good-humored conspiracy with the reader) that very little of it came off as any more disturbing than Halloween pranks where blindfolded kids gets their hands dipped in bowls of spaghetti and sauce. The Comics Code pretty much killed anything except “play violence” until underground comix and the Vietnam War (not to mention widespread social unrest) made such concerns important again, the latter by shoving everyone’s face in violence and the former by giving vent to the full range of artistic expression. Suddenly “mainstream” comics seemed inadequate to deal with issues of “real violence.”

Because the medium is fundamentally inadequate for it.

When I came into comics c. ’78, I pressed, inadequately, for more “serious violence” in comics. Not so much that I wanted to see blood and guts everywhere (Don McGregor and Billy Graham’s BLACK PANTHER regularly churned out enough blood for a hundred comics) but I wanted to see more realistic effects of violence. Bruised, puffy faces after extended fist fights. A couple broken bones once in awhile. So many people were coming back from the dead in comics that it seemed like a good (if only briefly accepted) idea that characters who died should stay dead, to give death some meaning. At my instigation, Marvel keeper-of-the-continuity Mark Gruenwald started the short-lived Mighty Marvel Deathlist, posted behind his desk, of characters who could no longer be used because, hell, they were dead. Anyway, it just seemed to me that if we were going to base an industry on the joys of personal physical combat, we ought to at least mention the downside of it once in awhile.

Because the fact is that “real violence” often has terrible consequences: social, personal and psychological. Bombs go off and people die, and they don’t come back from the dead. A photograph of a man torn apart by a bomb on a bus in Israel, his eyes still open, is repellent, sickening and saddening, and it should be. It evokes an empathic response because we automatically acknowledge this person as another human being – if we assume the person is an innocent victim. If the face were half-obscured by a kafia, we might make other assumptions (a terrorist blew himself up). Photos of John Dillinger ripped apart by FBI bullets and lying dead in a pool of himself outside a Chicago cinema might evoke other responses. You probably got twinges of different responses just by reading the descriptions.

But photos, film and TV have a special power to make these things seem real that comics just don’t have. In a long ago interview, Gil Kane compared a comic book fist fight to a movie fist fight, even a bad one, and pointed out that the movie will always be more immediately convincing because you’re dealing with two real guys up there on the screen who are fighting to the best of their abilities, and we automatically respond to that just because identifiably real people are involved. Comics are drawn. By our very nature we’re already a step away from the real. We don’t have that immediate power to convince; we have to work at it. Comics art is iconography, and all iconography is fetishistic. The artist chooses which elements to highlight and which to downplay or dismiss. Comics becomes stylized to evoke specific emotional or psychological responses (in fact, this is mainly what distinguishes good artists from bad in this business; the good ones understand this, at least intuitively), and while films and TV – any storytelling medium – do this too, comics can do it more effectively because, unlike film and TV, there’s nothing fundamentally requiring them to be grounded in the real.

In other words, comic books are fetishism, which goes a long way toward explaining the sometimes obsessive fixation on superheroes (themselves highly stylized fetishistic objects, replete with ceremonial garments and rituals).

I place no value judgment on that. But it does mean we can’t do “real violence” because simply the act of drawing a man on a bus with his guts blown apart and his eyes open fetishizes the image. We’re not seeing anything real; we’re seeing what the artist wants us to see. Which, after all, is what art is for. But there’s no immediate empathic connection to the image, no automatic framework for our response. That’s what story in comics is for, to create an identification with a character.

So that when something bad does happen to them, then we empathize. Then we feel the response.

Which is where our fixation on heroism has served us badly over the years. By focusing, increasingly to the exclusion of other characters (except in rare instances), on “heroes,” who, by the fetishistic mode of comics are basically invulnerable, we gut the ability of the medium to evoke a response. Other characters exist only insofar as the hero responds to them, and our responses are filtered through the hero’s; what happens in the story is only important insofar as it affects the hero. Instead of encouraging a wide range of emotional content, we’ve basically narrowcasted. The emphasis on the hero is supposed to generate a stronger reader identification, but I suspect it has had the opposite effect.

We can make “real violence” felt in comics, but only through characters. The art itself simply removes any “violence” from a context other than the art, and only story can put it back. There are those who don’t feel any “violent content” is appropriate in comics or any other medium (though why media would traumatize or – my favorite word – “desensitize” anyone when the real world is traumatizing and desensitizing enough is beyond me), but I believe it has value. This is our world. We’re here to shine light on it.

The story’s going around (Rich Johnston mentioned it in his CBR column yesterday, but he’s not the only one) that Diamond and CrossGen have reached a rapprochement, with the former acknowledging the latter has crossed that mystical Rubicon of enough market share to qualify as a “Premier” publisher.

Which, if true, cool. Congratulations, CrossGen. Doesn’t mean anything to me one way or the other.

However…

The situation (again, if the stories are accurate) continues to reveal the strangeness of Diamond’s inner workings. Diamond claims it’s not a monopoly – and it’s true that there are competitors (tiny, tiny competitors) – but given that they still control the vast bulk of comics distribution in America, they’re the exclusive distributor in the direct market for most major companies which enforces their “sole source” status as far as most comics shops are concerned, and they’re moving as hard as they can into trade paperback/graphic novel/bookstore distribution, monopoly seems to be a pretty good description. So it’s a little disturbing to hear that those publishers who are already part of the “Premier” program can blackball newcomers.

In an industry with a history of powerful publishers joining forces to crush upstart competitors (do I need to recite the Archie-DC-Comics Code assault on EC Comics again, or DC’s suppression ’60s Marvel while both shared a distributor strongly allied with DC?) this is a terrible policy, and one that doesn’t make any business sense for Diamond. It suggests that if another Image (just to use probably the most spectacular example of a new company in living memory) were to arise with the strong potential of jumpstarting the extravagance of readers, any one of the Gang Of Five could stop it in its tracks and Diamond (and, therefore, the business) would be unable to capitalize on the possibilities. Even if such a company were to grab (yes, I know the current mechanics of the business would make it next to impossible, but I’m being hyperbolic for effect) 20% of the market out of the gate, Diamond would be forced to restrict it to what would amount to the second rank status of most comics companies, and logic would dictate that the more potentially threatening the competitor the more incentive the Gang Of Five would have to lock it out.

It’s a bad policy, bad for the business. It’s anti-competitive, and makes Diamond a protectorate for the companies least in need of protecting. It fosters the notion (cherished in some parts, and, I’m sure, well-appreciated by Marvel, and possibly DC) that all the business is really about is the longstanding competition between Marvel and DC, and the rest are more or less irrelevant. It’s even bad for the Gang Of Five, since it means they can squelch serious competition (if they choose to) by means other than their output. It creates an unfair battleground.

If Diamond feels the 5% rule is necessary, they should have no other conditions. Any company that garners more than 5% of the market should be entitled to the services and benefits allowed to any other company with more than 5% of the market, and there’s no reason (aside from thwarting competition) any competing publishers should have anything to say about it. If they can’t protect their positions with their product, they don’t deserve any other means.

Now that the Emmys are over (no, I didn’t watch them) the new TV season heads into full swing, but a few shows debuted in the last week. I have to cop to a strange asexual fascination with Bonnie Hunt. She’s been in several shows so far and it’s the same damn frustration every time. On talk shows (notably DAVID LETTERMAN) Hunt is a stitch, so natural and off the wall you often can’t believe you’re hearing what she’s saying. In sitcoms, she goes self-effacing and morose. Where the hell does her natural vivacity go? Her sitcoms – I think she creates them herself – grind into depressing affairs, and LIFE WITH BONNIE (Tuesday, 8:30PM) is no exception. Mostly. Hunt plays a TV morning show hostess who’s a working mom with a hausfrau maid, two precocious cherubs and a surgeon husband. (The poor kid who plays her redheaded son is downright creepy, and how exactly do a blonde woman and a brunette man end up with a redheaded child, anyway? You’d think hubby would remember enough of medical school to hire a private detective…) Anytime Hunt’s character gets anywhere near her family, the show dies. Just dies. But! Remember she plays a show host? When the character is “on air,” the difference is shocking. She’s spontaneous, vivacious, has great chemistry with everyone. She smiles! The first episode had a wonky scene with two Italian chefs doing a tiramisu cooking segment that was one of the funniest things I’ve seen on TV in years. If anyone at ABC had any brains (see below), they’d flush the family in a hot New York minute and put TV Bonnie “on air” permanently.

ABC also debuted TWIN… er… PUSH NEVADA (Thursday, 9PM) last Tuesday, finally putting all those struck sets from TWIN PEAKS to some use. The gimmick here is that we get a shot at $1,045,000 by deciphering clues (to what? I dunno) while following a heroic IRS agent (uh… sure…) as he unravels an evil, government-frightening conspiracy that has set up shop in some desert hellhole-in-the-wall. It’s shoveled on with a pitchfork, and whereas David Lynch has a skill at making his actors behave as though they were really in the oddball little fictive world spread around them, the characters in PUSH NEVADA (including the strangely antiseptic femme fatale) seem desperately aware that everything around them is façade, including the story, which plays out so methodically it’s anything but quirky. It’s TWIN PEAKS done as an episode of MANNIX. Maybe if they paid us a million and change to watch it…

Does ABC even have a programming staff anymore? You’d think being in the dumper for so long would prompt them to go after something that might actually, you know, interest someone. Given that the best they seem to do is cling to 20/20 and WHOSE LINE IS IT ANYWAY?, I’m thinking maybe a scorched earth policy might be for the best. If they’re hiring advisors, they know where to find me; then again, the last ABC show I watched faithfully was VENGEANCE UNLIMITED (which deserves a DVD boxed set if anything does).

Speaking of VU, that show’s creator John McNamara co-created FASTLANE (Fox, Wednesday 9PM), and as throwaway crap goes it’s kind of entertaining. Totally tongue-in-cheek, it’s MIAMI VICE relocated to Malibu and hopped on crystal meth. See, there’s this special cop unit with undercover cops who never live as anything but the bad guy characters they play and who keep all the wealth they appropriate from the bad guys they take down, and… okay, the premise make zero sense, but the show at least has some verve and Peter Facinelli and Bill Bellamy make a likeable enough latter day Crockett and Tubbs. I wouldn’t say it strikes me as worth watching, but I’ll watch it until I get tired of it. One bit of advice: MIAMI VICE only got truly entertaining (for about a season and a half) when squad boss Gregory Sierra got unexpectedly iced, then replaced by Edward James Olmos, who came on like the devil in Armani. As boss of the special FASTLANE unit, Tiffani Thiessen makes a ridiculous tough chick. (The best inadvertent laugh of the first episode was when she hopped out of a van in SWAT fatigues, all gooey with toughness.) Buy her a ticket for wherever Gregory Sierra went, and bring in someone with some genuine cool and toughness.

Don’t ask how, but I got roped into watching the season premieres of both THAT 70S SHOW (Fox, Tuesday 8PM) and SABRINA (WB, Friday 8:30PM). Whatever scant charm 70s had is completely gone now, along with anything vaguely resembling a joke. SABRINA, on the other hand, has apparently discovered what it apparently thinks is a goldmine of humor: abject cruelty. The characters now seem to exist only to torture each other, while they didn’t ignore the physical “comedy” either, sharing several scenes of Salem the Talking Cat getting mauled by a rat. Oh, man, were my sides splitting. And Archie Comics is concerned about starlet Melissa Joan Hart’s belly button?!

When I was a boy back there getting my Catholic education (no, not that kind of Catholic education… never was an altar boy…) I heard put forth the proposition that every sin was in fact two sins: a sin of action and a sin of thought. In other words, if you steal my money, the theft itself is a sin, but conceiving of the theft in the first place is also a sin. Extrapolation: if you consider stealing my money but then don’t steal it, you’ve still committed a sin, and God’ll getcha for it!

Which, apparently, is now American foreign policy, except we ain’t gonna leave it to God. As the Hand Puppet announced last week, if the USA even thinks foreign countries are thinking about going against American interests (and we know how broad those can be, particularly where oil is involved), the first strike is now our right of “self-defense.” (We now say “imminent” when we mean possible threats that could arise someday) .That this policy is cynical, manipulative and dangerous has not escaped many foreign nations, though many Americans – most of them in Congress, running for re-election, and apparently eager to grant the Presidency quasi-dictatorial powers to use military action not only without the consent of other nations but also without the Constitutionally-required consent of Congress – are thrilled by the bold proactive stance. Presumption of innocence until proven guilty is the theoretical cornerstone of American jurisprudence, but since the Hand Puppet (and the Attorney General) haven’t shown any inclination to apply that principle domestically (except where rich corporate allies are concerned), it’s no surprise there’s no inclination to apply it internationally. It’s also no great surprise that “pre-emptive self-defense” was the same rationale Hitler used to justify invading Poland.

For many moons, people keep asking me if I’ve been reading NOBLE CAUSES (Image Comics, $2.95@) but until Image sent me the five extant issues, I hadn’t. I keep hearing how an artistically revamped version will be included in the alleged new Image superhero universe, but we’ll see how that goes. The series is okay, decently written by Jay Faerber. There’s nothing wrong with it as superhero comics go, and it’s got at least a different slant – the central character is a normal human who marries into a family of superheroes only to have her spouse abruptly incinerated on their honeymoon – but it also underscores the weaknesses of the traditional superhero concept. Faerber’s core conceit is that these renowned superheroes (exactly why society thinks so highly of them is only expressed through unconvincing innuendo) really have feet of clay in their private lives. In other words, they act like the cast of PORT CHARLES. Yet our plucky, outspoken heroine is able to draw out the innate nobility still nestled deep in their dysfunctional little souls. Two problems: the soap opera superteam has by now been done to death in comics – Marv Wolfman made half a career out of it – and their “normal” behavior (the “they’re real people after all!” behavior) is ultimately only there so their True Heroic natures can shine out when called for. Aside from the abrupt death of the apparent focal hero of the series (and, this being superhero comics, there’s the lingering acceptance that he’ll return to life at some point, and Faerber already teased it once), there just aren’t any surprises. It doesn’t help that the art, though adequate, is nondescript enough that NOBLE CAUSES could be any of three million DC superhero team books of the 90s. The art question has reportedly been taken care of with the next go round, and I’m hoping Jay can stretch beyond the basic concept into some genuinely new territory, away from the comfortable superhero concepts. I’m pretty sure he’s capable of it.

There’s also an aura of the past in FREEMIND #0 the first release from Future Comics (220 Brandon St. Suite 104, Brandon FL 33511; $2.25) which isn’t surprising considering their avowed policy is to create grassroots superhero comics for disenfranchised fans. It has the pacing and style of an ’80s DC comic, with pleasantly open page design, decent-to-good art (some of it looked rushed and clunky, some looked like classic Giordano), and utilitarian dialogue that pushes the action along and not much else. The book also introduces two of the three premiere Future characters, Deathmask and the eponymous Freemind, but doesn’t really tell us anything about them. (And I have to say Deathmask’s speech patterns drive me right up a wall.) Well, Marvel wasn’t built in a day, and despite the criticism I liked it well enough to give Future another shot. I can appreciate their desire to feed a market that’s probably not being fed, but I also think they’ll have to make the material more adventurous and involving to do it.

Speaking of NOBLE CAUSES, the Fall 2002 issue of the semi-fanzine ODESSA STEPS (& © O-Goshi Studios, Box 3656, Virginia Beach VA 23454; $3.95) includes an interview with Jay Faerber, plus one with Geoff Johns. Plus articles on LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, POWER MAN AND IRON FIST, Vince McMahon, and an assortment of reviews. It’s so much like an old time fanzine, back in the days when fans believed you could intelligently discuss comics, that reading it gave me the warm and fuzzies. Even given the superhero fixation, I liked it.

Hmmm. Right at the end of the previous CATWOMAN series, before the current Ed Brubaker series began, I wrote an inventory issue of the book. For those who came in late, inventory issues are done on monthly work-for-hire comics so that when schedules foul up, as they inevitably do, the company will still have something to publish that month. That month turns out to be this month for CATWOMAN and it turns out today’s issue, #11, has my story, sweetly drawn by Brad Rader, instead of whatever was scheduled. (I only found about it last Thursday myself.) I hope Brubaker fans won’t be too annoyed.

After last week’s little list of BADLANDS reviews, a reader wrote to tell me there’s also a review at Movie Poop Shoot that includes a MORTAL SOULS review as well. (For those who’ve asked, Avatar should be releasing a collection of the latter sometime early next year.) I knew about it, had it bookmarked, and forgot about it. Thanks.

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. 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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