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Issue #55

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #55

Greco propped himself up against the tent pole, trying despite the dim light to read the worn letter. It was his last connection to home, the only thing besides his clothes he’d managed to take with him when they came. The electric fires flickered outside, shining through the threadbare tent walls. He ran his fingers over his address, his last connection to a home he expected never to see again.

A sour smell drifted in from the next tent, and gelatinous sobs. A man, young from the sound of it. Had probably never been on life’s receiving end before. Greco hadn’t bothered to meet the neighbors. No one here did, and it was thousands full now, one of thousands of similar places all over the country. Way stations, really, where Americans were sent to await apportionment. He wondered why they were called Hoovervilles, and who Hoover was. Whatever the reason, they were at least warm and safe, with the International Red Cross delivering food and medical care regularly, though Greco could do without those damn ministers who made the rounds, jabbering piously about the meek inheriting the earth as graven face after graven face watched their lives being torn away from under them.

Not that it was a country anymore. The president had seen to that: standing before the news cameras, peering with hawkish intensity and announcing, in prissy, patronizing tones suggesting challenge or disagreement was treason, that the United States was dissolved. It had been in the wind for months – in fact, Lowry had been elected on a “states’ rights” platform, promising to wipe out “federal interference” – but no one expected Congress to settle the issue with such finality. Riots followed instantly, and legal challenges, until the Supreme Court declared that while altering the Constitution was difficult, no injunction existed against abandoning it. That was the true end; the riots gave President Lowry an excuse to call in UN “peacekeepers” to round up the “former” Americans, now tagged violent agitators and a threat to world peace, for the new policy called “apportionment”: the most extreme diaspora in history, displacing the 310 million citizens of the United States evenly throughout every other country in the world not in North America. Greco knew there were many pockets of resistance scattered through the mountains and now vacated cities, but the Peacekeepers were already cutting off their supply routes and relocating their supporters. A month ago it had all seemed impossible, and then the dominoes just fell.

Greco had seen signs, as far back as a year. Everyone had. But those damn TV commentators, the ones with their own ranting talk shows on what passed for news networks, had dismissed every indicator as left wing paranoia and class baiting. So what if it had become a fad among the rich to get double citizenship in “friendly” places like Taiwan, or Switzerland or the Bahamas? It meant nothing, they said. So what if the same people, and corporations, spent the year briskly trading their dollars for yen, or Euros or ringget, and moving their money overseas, or that those same people and corporations flooded campaign coffers of most of the men and women swept into Congress in the last – the double meaning was no longer lost on Greco – election. Businesses had been relocating offshore for decades. It didn’t mean what happened had been cynically planned in back rooms.

It was, as the man on the Fox News Network had said, simply good business sense. Financiers had been breaking up companies and selling them off for years, why not a country? The cold fact was that, with deficit spending the rule in government since the break of the 21st century and its constant stream of “focused” wars, a continuous breakdown of living standards and the steady relocation of corporations overseas, in a world market America was simply worth more in pieces than collectively.

But the buzz had gone through the camp that already some with offshore assets were buying up land, now that the values had collapsed. Greco hoped the pundits were right, and these were just lies so people would have a focus for their anger and frustration.

The tent flap flew open. A tired-eyed block of a man stood there in a khaki UN jacket, spitting out orders without threat in some Slavic language. No threat was needed; there was no question that Greco would resist. He was adrift in history now, like billions before him since the dawn of time, and would go where the current took him. He wondered if they’d give him a new name in his new land, the way his great-great-grandfather, arriving on Ellis Island almost two centuries before, had been renamed “The Greek” by laughing officials on his way into the United States. Greco wished he knew where his ex-wife and son had been sent, and whether he would land near them, but only time, not the soldier, would answer these questions.

There were old schoolbusses now, at the gates of the Hooverville, to take them to the planes and boats and, ultimately, away from America. Soon, it seemed, it would be as if America had never existed. Greco smiled, but kept his silence. He knew what they would never understand. America was not the land, or even the people. America was an idea, a great idea, and wherever he was sent, he carried America with him. As hard as the world might try to escape it, as hard as they tried to confuse the physical with the idea as if they were interchangeable whereas more often that not they had little resemblance, the world too believed in America. He had little doubt that in some way America would be back, because it would never really vanish.

An Asian-American woman blinded by tears stumbled against Greco as he marched toward the busses, knocking the envelope from his hand as she fell at his feet. For a moment he panicked, watching the wind flap the envelope through a sea of ankles, and he almost broke after it. But the woman flailed, unable to get to her feet. Greco helped her up, but by then there was no chance of going after the envelope. He caught one last glimpse of it, but the address was too small to read at that distance. He could barely make out the block letters in the come-on: “YOU MAY ALREADY HAVE WON.”

Gently holding the woman’s arm to support her, Greco stepped into line and within half an hour had taken a seat on a bus.

Doesn’t anyone have a hink detector anymore? You know, like when you hear some ridiculous story that someone insists is true, but all you have to do is think about it for a second or two and it smells hinky, it just doesn’t add up.

So last week I get a dozen or so e-mails begging me to sign an online petition to preserve the sanctity of Superman. Seems someone said on AIN’T IT COOL NEWS that JJ (ALIAS) Abrams wrote a SUPERMAN screenplay that wreaks havoc with the “mythos” (I don’t know if he coined that word or cribbed it, but August Derleth is probably turning on some fiery spit somewhere for popularizing it) by revealing Jimmy Olson is gay and Lex Luthor is also a space alien, presumably also from Krypton, and other nonsense. Suddenly the cultural purity leagues mobilize, petitions and e-mails fly, actual news outlets bored to tears pick up the story, and bingo!

Mountains out of molehills.

First of all, I don’t give a rat’s ass what they do with Superman. So what if Jimmy Olson’s gay? (Oh, like you didn’t already know.) I wouldn’t care if they revealed Clark Kent was gay. (He’s an alien! Logically, why would human reproductive systems figure in at all?) Okay, the Luthor bit’s a stretch, but it comes down to this: I don’t care.

Neither do 99% of the American public, which is the problem Superman’s been struggling with for years. (Kill him and that gets their attention, sure. That rock they all want a piece of, until they figure out it’s worthless.) And that’s what all this smells like to me: a publicity stunt. Some flak at Warners decides it would be a cool idea to put out fake info, something to get everyone all hot and bothered and talking about Superman again. How the Superman concept is such a great concept that it shouldn’t ever ever be tampered with. Let people get riled up. At worst, the handful of rabid wolverines who hang on every word on Harry whatsisname’s board shrug and mutter curse words under their breath, but no one in Hollywood considers them “the real audience” anyway. Best case scenario: the rumor spurs an uproar that makes the national news, Warners doesn’t dignify the report with a response, and later can claim to “giving the people what they want.” But this is a company that considers Superman one of their top franchises, their most recognizable proper (aside from maybe Bugs Bunny) and a steady licensing revenue stream. And there’s the key thing right there, something even DC has stumbled across time and time again: Warners isn’t about to allow any changes in the character (at least not long term changes, which is how we knew right from the first salvo that Superman wasn’t really dead) that would threaten the profitability of its licenses. (Which means Jimmy being gay is probably less likely than Luthor being extraterrestrial.) I have no idea if my “flak theory” is true, but odds are still pretty good someone up the chain of command at Warners – and Superman/Batman scripts travel way up the chain – would kibosh any major changes before they saw the light of day.

What they’re far less likely to kibosh is an inappropriate but marketable actor like Nic Cage or Keanu Reeves cast as Superman. But Michael Keaton didn’t hurt BATMAN against all expectations, so that’s also probably nowhere near as important as all twelve or so hardcore Superman fans would prefer to believe.

Last week’s mention of CATWOMAN #11 (which has been getting kind reviews, thank you very much) brought the same question from a number of people, so I’ll answer it here.

I thought everyone knew this, but apparently not. As I mentioned, the CATWOMAN story was what’s known as an inventory issue. (Also called a “fill-in.”) It’s a necessary evil of monthly comics. If a comic has to come out every month, schedules must be rigorously kept. Printing times are reserved at the printer, and if they’re missed fines are often imposed. It’s hard to slip a book in that’s due for publication next week because then it comes out early (unless the printer, publisher or distributor is willing to sit on it) and that screws up all kinds of other things. So publishers like Marvel and DC, the ones who put out recurring monthly titles featuring company owned work-for-hire characters, took to getting one-off issue stories written and drawn in advance to sit in a drawer so that if, say, the intended contents for CATWOMAN #11 don’t materialize on schedule, or have to be held back for some reason, the editor has a story done that can replace it so the book comes out on schedule.

Back in The Old Days, this wasn’t all that necessary. Basically every story was an inventory story. It didn’t matter whether The Flash fought Captain Cold this month or next (still doesn’t, really) because next month’s story wouldn’t have any connection to this month’s, or this month’s to last’s, except the lead and supporting characters. Character arcs were pretty much unheard of. Then continuity reigned supreme, at Marvel at least, getting an iron grip on the company at exactly the same moment – the mid-’70s – schedules went to hell. They had a quick solution – reprint old stories – but that had a two-fold negative effect: somehow many stories were reprinted right in the middle of modern stories that duplicated many of their elements, exposing how much recycling goes on particularly in superhero comics; and so many reprints were called for that Marvel was becoming known as The House Of Reprints. (Legend has it one of the factors that lead to Jim Shooter as editor-in-chief was his promise to eliminate reprints and bring all the books to schedule.) So it quickly became pretty common practice to get inventory issues prepared for every book. Which, given that many of the people working on the books were unwilling to add to their schedules, made a lot of work for guys like me.

Of course, times change and systems change. The fixation on story continuity makes inventory issues – designed to fit anywhere – problematic. Inventory stories were never anyone’s ideal solution, but the emphasis of the direct sales market on advance listings has complicated things. Direct sales are non-returnable, meaning the retailers order comics based (theoretically) on their descriptions in places like PREVIEWS and then are duty bound to pay for them. Under those conditions, it’s easy to understand why they might get a little angry if they order a comic listed as being drawn by, oh, Alex Ross, who’s believed to generate sales, but when it gets in their hands it has actually been drawn by Joe Stumblepen. Enough disgruntlement over this kind of thing led to returnability – if you order a comic and what comes to you isn’t what you were told it was going to be, you can send it back (which is one of the items in Brian Hibbs’ class action suit against Marvel) – which, esp. in a non-returnable market, is among the bigger sins you can commit. Publishers don’t like to have to take whole runs back. Not that retailers ever return that many comics. But ever since returnability became practice, editors have been leery of crossing that line. Back when I was writing SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN, we were doing a crossover with the Big Story running through what was known as the “Midnight Sons” books (GHOST RIDER and a handful of related titles). Despite SPEC SPIDEY being one of the only two extraneous Marvel series crossing over with the arc, at the 11th hour Midnight Sons editor Bobbie Chase imposed on us a condition that pretty much obliterated the story we had set up, leaving us without an issue. Tom DeFalco, then editor-in-chief and aware of the situation, had given Mark permission to “go returnable” with the issue, meaning we could walk away from the advertised Midnight Sons connection, which in theory would require okays from Bobbie’s office, which would require time we didn’t have. Mark, however, was just starting out as a solo editor, and didn’t want the stigma of a “returnable” book on his permanent record, so we ended up rapidly patching together a storyline that had little to do with the Midnight Sons arc but substantively matched the solicitation copy. I’m not blaming anyone or casting stones, I’m just saying. That’s how much editors don’t want a rep for returnable books.

And inventory issues, unless they’re scheduled in advance of solicitation, are automatically returnable.

There have also been editors who handed out piles and piles of inventory jobs, resulting in stacks of work (in varying stages) the companies ultimately couldn’t publish, that were done in some cases just to keep talent busy, at high costs to the company. This practice isn’t much noticed in good times, but in bad times, when every penny gets watched, they notice. Additionally, as mini-series, graphic novels and TPB-reprintable arcs have increasingly become the norm even on work-for-hire titles, inventory work has become much less common. Many monthly titles now have one inventory issue in the drawer and that’s it, with no other ordered up until the first one is scheduled. Like the arc-less monthly comic itself, the inventory story is now an endangered species.

The fall TV season crawls on and on.

As an actor, Donnie Wahlberg really came into his own with HBO’s BAND OF BROTHERS, playing the real-life counterpart of Sgt. Rock of Easy Company. He never got much chance to shine on CBS’s abortive BIG APPLE – the show died before his character even had a pivotal scene – but now he gets another shot at small screen stardom on NBC’s BOOMTOWN (10PM Sunday). It’s a qualified success. Unlike most cop dramas, it projects humanism but doesn’t wallow in it. The show’s gimmick is to split the action of a crime amid a host of participants, observers and unravelers, and there’s more than a little CSI in the way they repeat certain actions across perceptions to layer and correct them until “the truth” emerges. There are a couple problems they need to overcome. While the show allows special focus on certain characters – a DA, a reporter, a couple street cops, two detectives – it has so many characters none of them get painted in any depth, something later episodes will probably take care of but a risky strategy in a medium (like comics) where failure is now measured in minutes rather than weeks. And it’s hard to imagine such a format generating the complexity of crimes and motivations audiences have come to expect from shows like LAW AND ORDER. The first episode was interesting enough structurally to put it over, and having actors like Wahlberg, Mykelti Williamson and Kelly Rowan on board is a big plus, but I hope the producers don’t wait around for the novelty to wear off. Until it does, this is the one I’ll be keeping my eyes on.

A couple shows I had high hopes for really left me flat. HAUNTED (UPN, 9PM Tuesday) was created by a friend of mine, Andrew Cosby, and had a pretty good sounding premise, but the debut episode was undermined by its relentlessly singular tone. Like the other big disappointment of the week, ROBBERY HOMICIDE DIVISION (CBS, 10PM Friday), it registers in memory as having been filmed in black and white. Like HACK (CBS, 9PM Friday), the hero of HAUNTED is a constantly clench-jawed ex-cop (and, like HACK, with a black ex-partner still on the force who helps him out!) crushed by the weight of his own backstory. (I see the heavy hand of TV executives here, as many in Hollywood seem to have forgotten that backstory isn’t character.) Why does so many cop dramas on TV (and it doesn’t matter if they’re cops or ex-cops, if it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it’s a cop) have to be so morose? Do producers think this is realism?

Certainly ROBBERY HOMICIDE DIVISION came with a pedigree. Michael Mann co-created and produced the innovative MIAMI VICE and CRIME STORY, and Tom Sizemore’s one of those character actors guaranteed to spice up any film he’s in. But ROBBERY HOMICIDE DIVISION, filmed in shades of ice as if to say this isn’t your father’s MIAMI VICE, is just morose as well. It’s DRAGNET REDUX, a show that’s only about itself, if you know what I mean. (And the writers do live in Los Angeles, right? So why don’t they know you can’t go north or south on Mulholland Drive? Why are the detectives so puzzled that a fleeing drug billionaire is headed for Sherman Way West when they ought to know the Van Nuys Airport is up there?) Sizemore’s character is so flattened out he is, like Jack Webb in DRAGNET, a cartoon. The brief nostalgic burst of a pyrrhic MIAMI VICE ending was there, but like everything else in the show it was – that word again – morose.

I’ll give both those shows at least one more try, to see if they get their footing. I’m not inclined to give HACK that consideration. Not that David Morse, considerably beefier than in his ST. ELSEWHERE days, doesn’t make a credible enough action hero. Or might, if he didn’t spend the first half of the ep whining about how unfair it is that he got kicked off the force for skimming drug money – “combat pay,” as he puts it, and a quietly acknowledged part of “the code.” (The implications of widespread police corruption in HACK will doubtless never be explored, but his former partner on the force, still on the force and played by HOMICIDE‘s Andre Braugher, who has gone way past beefy to porky, also skimmed money but the hero didn’t roll on him, which is why Braugher’s still a cop and the hero’s a cabbie.) Yet, in the second half, the hero (I just realized I saw the whole ep and his name never registered) shifts to “I got what I deserved” out of the blue. OZ‘s Lee Turgeson has an extended cameo as the ep’s villain, but the story played like they were switching writers every other script page, because the hero keeps saying this thing or that shouldn’t be done, then three minutes later does it. Morose is the least of its problems.

And FASTLANE (Fox, 9PM Wednesday)has already lost me. Had me right up until the white undercover cop starts moaning about how he hates tricking the sexy chick criminals it’s his job to con and bust. Boo-hoo. Man, it drives me up a wall when undercover cop characters do that. I guess they all have to. Shows what decent, sensitive, conflicted human beings they really are. Nice guys at heart. But you’d think once they got that far, they’d have figured out that’s the job. I can see newbie undercover cops having those moments, but established veterans? If you don’t like it, get another job. Me, I’m getting another show to watch: AMAZING RACE 3, which starts tonight on CBS at 9.

But at least FASTLANE isn’t morose. The same can’t be said for NBC’s IN-LAWS (8PM Tuesday), trapping Dennis Farina into a depressed Robert De Niro shtick in ALL IN THE FAMILY MEETS THE PARENTS. Farina’s one of my favorite actors, but aside from CRIME STORY he sure ends up in some bad shows. In this one, his newly married daughter and her husband move in so the husband can go to cooking school (a “girly” profession, y’know?) and the show consists mainly of Farina and the son-in-law alternately sniping at and tenuously bonding with each other. Did I say tenuously? I meant tediously. For a guy who seems to have everything, Farina’s character comes across as a desperately unhappy man.

A few weeks ago I mentioned that all the networks seem to have their own look. An NBC show looks like an NBC show, a WB show looks like a WB show, etc. ABC’s MDs (10PM Wednesday) proves me wrong. It looks like a CBS show. It plays like a CBS show. TRAPPER JOHN MD, to be exact. The selling point is it supposedly does for HMOs what M*A*S*H did for the Army, as a couple of willful doctors evade and flout their pencilpusher bosses to achieve the best possible health care for their patients. Semi-comedic and relaxed, as doctor shows go it’s pretty watchable, but it pretty much lives and dies on the charm of stars William Fichtner and John Hannah. Who I like, so I’ll probably give it another shot or two.

AMERICAN DREAMS (NBC, 8PM Sunday) purports to reflect the reality of the 1960s, and having lived through them I can say the show at least got the lighting right. But they lost me at the moment the daughter decided to show cleavage on AMERICAN BANDSTAND. In 1964? Not a chance.

ER (NBC, 10PM Thursday) in its season premiere generated the only genuinely shocking moment on network TV in recent memory. Of course, now we get the long night of the aftermath, but it’s nice to know that shows can still pull the unexpected out of their hat when they want to. Now that Mark Greene is dead and buried, maybe ER can dump the huge reservoir of moroseness that has been the show’s hallmark for the past few years. Hopefully they can figure out a decent storyline for the vastly underestimated Goran Visnjic too. Finally, PUSH NEVADA (9PM Thursday) dropped ABC to distant fifth place (behind UPN’s WWE SMACKDOWN but ahead of the WB’s JAMIE KENNEDY EXPERIMENT and OFF CENTRE) in its timeslot this past week, meaning the $1,000,000+ come-on isn’t getting many takers. Which ups your chances to win dramatically, except the show won’t survive October at this rate.

I don’t much feel like talking politics this week (spare me the cheers, please) but there are a couple interesting sites to check out. Though I can’t say I generally have a lot of respect for the man, Michael Kinsley has written a good article at SLATE on the problems the Hand Puppet has been having articulating a solid urgent reason to rush adventuring off to Iraq ASAP – and the reasons not to just hand that power over to him. (And we finally know where Iraq got any biological weapons it may have: from us.) It’s also interesting to note that the impending war is revitalizing what pathetically passes for “The Left” in this country, though most right-wingers I know laugh it off, probably with good reason.

For an example of rising leftous anger, check out THE DEMOCRATIC UNDERGROUND, which is Democratic as in process, not in party.

Also, the Office Of Homeland Security has applied for a patent on its new logo (left). An upside-down flag (isn’t that, like, an international distress signal?) and an eye peeping through a keyhole? Are these people flippin’ nuts?!! Is the design a Freudian slip, or do they really not understand the concept of symbolism? Or is it just truth in advertising?

If you’re a fan of CORTO MALTESE (yes, it’s more that just an island in THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS) by the great Italian writer-artist Hugo Pratt (and if you don’t know Pratt or CORTO MALTESE, you can’t really call yourself a comics fan), you can catch the trailer for the upcoming CORTO MALTESE movie, a reportedly fairly faithful adaptation of Pratt’s CORTO MALTESE IN SIBERIA at Cinemovies. Two caveats: like the movie, it’s in French, and hitting the link will pump a ton of casino pop-up ads onto your computer, and those are in French too.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also Email 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 Email>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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