I'm thinking maybe it's time to throw in the towel.
We've been talking for – christ, as long as I can remember now – about broadening the market for comics, about making it a better field to work in, about opening up real creativity in the field, about getting the public to understand the business isn't just about bombastic morons in gaudy circus clothes, etc., blah blah, and I don't mean me and my cronies, I mean going back to when I was a kid and fanzine and semi-prozines were talking about it. Back to when the campy BATMAN TV show drove home the concept with a sledgehammer that, yeah, comic books were just as dumb as you ever imagined they were. Even though they weren't. Some of them, anyway.
There've been a lot of efforts to change that perception in the intervening years. The occasional public relations assault. Mostly it has come down to talent doing what they want to do and damn the torpedos. With the vast majority of them fading into obscurity.
But forget ROAD TO PERDITION, GHOST WORLD, JIMMY CORRIGAN, MAUS. Forget SANDMAN, PREACHER, TRANSMETROPOLITAN. 'Cause maybe it's time we finally fess up: that's not what comics are about.
Maybe it's time to accept that comic books are about superheroes, that's all they'll ever really be about – at least on any scale that even vaguely resembles mass acceptance – and any other presumptions are mere hubris.
If I seem in a foul mood, it's because everywhere I look this week I see superheroes. I hadn't been in my local Borders or Barnes & Noble in a couple of months, and was startled to see, in their magazine racks, sizable sections now set aside for comics. Mostly superhero comics. (Thank god for Viz and STAR WARS comics, and I never thought I'd say that about the latter.) Among other things, this gave me the opportunity to finally read MARVILLE, which was prominently stocked. (MARVILLE was Bill Jemas' entry in Marvel's "cancellation sweepstakes" against the renumbered CAPTAIN MARVEL and whatever the other thing was, neither of which were in evidence, meaning either MARVILLE's getting some sort of distribution preference or the others are selling better.) I've read pissy reviews of MARVILLE, so I had some idea of what I was getting into, but I don't think reviewers have quite understood what a work of genius the book is. Certainly being that hamfisted and that obscure in a single story takes some sort of genius. I remember when Bill and Joe made their move at Marvel, and complained about the sort of story that you have to have inside information (like knowledge of Marvel's entire continuity history) to understand, and this certainly stands apart from that, but it's the exact same sin, a compendium of snipes and in-jokes really meant only for the cognoscenti, and pretty much guaranteed to baffle outsiders at the same time it drives home the nail that superhero comic books are really, really stupid. And this is from the guy who runs the company. (MARVILLE also became a topic of heat from retailers recently, when Marvel decided to run the second issue gratis on their website, rendering those non-returnable copies the retailers had ordered long before potentially unsalable, on the principle that you don't buy the cow when you can get the milk for free.)
So then I open this week's ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, it's annual "Power" issue describing who's got the reins in the entertainment industry these days and where they stand vis-à-vis prior years – and running throughout the mag are various stars and shakers drawn to be Marvel and DC superheroes. I have to say it was a decent joke. But it also reinforces the public notion that superheroes – particularly Marvel and DC – are all comics are about. I despise it for the same reason I despise Shane Helms' goofy "Hurricane" Helms superhero character in the WWE. They're supposed to be tributes in their own way, I know. It's just a joke, I know. I find I've really lost any sense of humor about such things. I'm seen them going on way too long, and they're always the same thing. Yeah, I know: lighten up. All they're doing is pissing on my shoes, why shouldn't I laugh about it?
Then I run across an ad for a "comic book-themed" episode of next week's CHARMED (WB, Sunday 8PM). Meaning, of course, superheroes (and awful, awful costumes), replete with every BIF! BAM! POW!-ism we've been saddled with for the 35 years since BATMAN first walked up the side of a building on TV. Why does anyone think this is original, or clever, or even interesting anymore?
Then I get an issue of Warren Ellis' BAD SIGNAL newsletter where he brings up the new breed of fan that's actively hostile to creator-owned books and considers them to be evil distractions that keep talent from working on what they're supposed to be working on: company-owned superhero comics. (An attitude few companies do much to dispel.)
Then there was BIRDS OF PREY (WB, Wednesday 9PM), which somehow managed to drastically gum up a ridiculously simple concept by paying great fealty to every splinter continuity regarding Batman in DC Comics over the past 25 years. There are bits and pieces cribbed from DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, THE KILLING JOKE, Paul Levitz's ALL-STAR COMICS run, the "No Man's Land" arc that ran through all the Bat-books, and more, compacted together into a sort of black hole of storytelling so dense with non-information hearing it's like swallowing a horse tranquilizer, without water. The similarity to the comic is this: Barbara Gordon, formerly Batgirl until she was crippled by the Joker, runs an operative from her wheelchair in her sanctum sanctorum. You could easily strip out all the Batgirl/Joker stuff and still have a perfectly workable concept. In this version, however, she's not working with The Black Canary (probably a good choice, as that name no longer has even the meek resonance it had in the '40s, and sounds pretty dumb spoken aloud, though I still have a sentimental attachment to it) but with The Huntress – once more the bastard of Batman and Catwoman – who goes around saying things like "I am… THE HUNTRESS!... and you are the prey!" Uh-huh. A young girl with psychic powers has the Black Canary's real name and apparently will fill the slot the current Batgirl has in the comics. And, rather, than the somewhat more sophisticated (not to mention lighter) quasi-espionage stories the comic was partial to during Chuck Dixon's run, the show has chosen to emulate the more recent BATMAN movies, locating the action in "New Gotham" and pitting "the girls" against a string of one-off superfoes ala the villain of the week in SMALLVILLE under the secret control of Harley Quinn, who appears to be angling toward bringing back The Joker. With the gloomy settings, a crippled heroine, the Huntress constantly moping how her "screwed-up life" (for that SOPRANOS realism, she's seeing psychiatrist Harley Quinn – apparently the only psychiatrist in New Gotham – teasing that she'll end up giving away all her secrets to her unsuspected worst enemy), the way it wallows in continuity nobody could care less about, and production so humorless it pushes into inadvertently funny, it's a pretty dreary affair. You'd think Tollin and Robbins, the producers, would have learned something from their successful run on SMALLVILLE, like strip it to the bone, focus on the characters, and add elements as you need them.
I know a lot of people who've been very pleased by all this "attention," like it's going to do something for comics. Who knows, maybe it will. Certainly the debut of BIRDS OF PREY got unprecedented interest, pushing the WB into a third place slot among the networks for possibly the first time in its existence. Maybe the "attention" will bring a new influx of readers to comics, but I doubt it. At any rate, money's about the best we can hope for from all this. (Not that money's bad, of course.) But it won't bring the comics industry what it needs: more diversity, more creativity, and the means to adequate expose those to a buying public. It won't encourage a wider audience to look to comics for their entertainment, unless their idea of entertainment is battling morons in gaudy outfits. Unless you walk to believe in trickle down theories. But the only trickles I see are us pissing on our own shoes, along with everyone else.
I dunno. My old man used to say the virtue of beating your head against a wall is it feels so good when you stop. I'm finally getting tired of beating my head against a wall. Okay, so that's it, it's official: we're a joke, and this is our place in society. Bring on the superheroes: POW! BIF! BAM!
And the winners are:
ABC made the first cancellations of the fall TV season, sort of. THAT WAS THEN (Friday 9PM), a PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED clone notable mainly for having Regis Philbin's daughter on the writing staff, isn't officially cancelled, it's "on hiatus," which is TV speak (at one point adopted by the comics industry) for "the show's cancelled but we don't want to say that," while PUSH NEVADA (Thursday 9PM) is now a retroactive seven part mini-series that will give all the remaining clues to the location of the show's $1,045,000 prize in the final episode a week from tomorrow. Temporarily filling the THAT WAS THEN slot will be more of AMERICA'S FUNNIEST HOME VIDEOS (I guess we can't enough of that show) until THE DREW CAREY SHOW (and its stunted appendage WHOSE LINE IS IT ANYWAY) are saved from Monday night hell and tossed into the frying pan there sometime in November. Meanwhile, the detective show MONK shifts to the Monday 10PM slot to fill DREW CAREY's shoes (and, against both CROSSING JORDAN (NBC) and CSI: MIAMI (CBS), to mostly likely twist in the wind in slow death), while, since ABC apparently hasn't suffered enough misery yet on Thursday nights, DINOTOPIA will fill MONK's 8PM slot against FRIENDS (NBC) and SURVIVOR (CBS). And you just know that's where they'll slot STARMAN, the latest "DC show" from Tollin/Robbins Productions, provided it ever gets past script acceptance and pilot. It must really suck to be ABC sometimes...
My biggest surprise of the last week was learning Bali was part of Indonesia. I've been hearing about Bali for decades and I don't think anyone ever mentioned that before last weekend's terror bombings there. Not that I ever gave Bali two consecutive thoughts, but no one ever says "Bali, in Indonesia," they just say "Bali." I knew it was in the South Pacific somewhere. I was never interested enough to check a map. So terrorists struck in Bali, and the president of Indonesia announced al-Qaeda was behind it. No evidence, of course, but who needs evidence when you've got a nation full of Muslim extremists to crack down on? (An early response to the bombings was the decision of Indonesia's largest extremist group to disband, fearing just such a crackdown.) Of course, again without the benefit of actual evidence, the Hand Puppet agreed with him. (His other insightful statement of the day was to pronounce, in outraged tones, that the Washington Sniper is "a cold-blooded killer." No kidding...) Are American armed forces heading for Indonesia next?
I can't understand why the Democrats aren't pounding the economy as a campaign theme this election season. It's their one real winning issue. The stock market's at a five year low. The outright scandals have slowed to a trickle, but more evidence has placed the Hand Puppet square at the center of Harken's finagling, despite all the denials of the last year or so. Retirement funds are hemorrhaging value at the same time medical costs, insurance premiums and the price of prescription drugs continue to skyrocket. Economic indicators like consumer spending are falling like tenpins, our economic surplus has plunged 94% since the Hand Puppet enacted his tax cuts($5.6 trillion then, $336 billion now) and the best economic plan he can come up with is more tax cuts while his people blithely talk about dropping $200 billion on war with Iraq.
Maybe it's becomes the Democrats don't have anything better, at least nothing they're willing to go on the line with. Instead, they're going for some really disgusting tactics, like the skeevy business recently in Montana where a Republican challenger for a Senate seat was driven out of the race via an ad showing old footage of him working as a hairdresser patting down another man's face. No, they didn't come right out and claim the guy was gay, but that was the intended implication, and apparently it was convincing enough that the Republican candidate decided it had destroyed his voter base. Truly appalling. With their recent success at switching candidates in the 11th hour in New Jersey, Democrats now seem in love with the idea of people dropping out of the race, but California governor Gray Davis better watch himself. Calling for his lame Republican opponent to drop out of the race, he's opening himself up to a far more threatening opponent: anyone else who isn't Gray Davis. Meanwhile, just to steer this back to comics (I know there are those out there who think I should only be talking comics, not politics), SPLASH reports the Hand Puppet Justice Department is on the verge of finally cutting a deal with accused swindler, former Stan Lee Productions uberlord, Brazilian detainee and Clinton accuser Peter Paul, to get him back to the USA and throwing around accusations before Sen. Hilary Clinton decides on a 2004 presidential run. Could this be? Could another Clinton doom another Bush to a one-term presidency? And could the Hand Puppet actually be banking on the credibility-bankrupt Paul to derail her?
Before I forget, a few weeks ago I raved up the work of Matt Bellisle. Turns out he's a participant in this month's STRIP SEARCH contest at the Dark Horse website. There are currently four entries. Check 'em out and vote for your favorite. You could be launching a career. (Matt's "Underground" was the book I reviewed here, and it's his entry there, and I still dig it, so it's got my vote.)
Eric Powell is one hell of a good comics artist, which he proves in DIGITAL WEBBING PRESENTS #5 (31 Westford St, Haverhill MA 01832; $2.95. Damn good artist, in the Wally Wood-Paul Smith vein. It's too bad his material is so campy-dumb, compendiums of purposely-chosen comics clichés wrapped in post-irony. But it's swell to look at, including the cover, so good everything else pales in comparison. Though there's other pretty decent art here as well, from Yildiray Cinar and Jason Ho. Not that anything's bad here; across the board it's good sub-professional material. DIGITAL WEBBING PRESENTS tends to be one of the more entertaining anthologies, but its format is its problem; stories tend to feel truncated, as if they're being told in shorthand, with a lot of emphasis on consciously rehashing familiar comics motifs. These people could use some room to breathe. But Powell stands out among the rest, way way out.
TRIPLE NOIR THEATER #3 (821 N Thomas St, Altus OK 73521-2837 or 4620 64th St, Lubbock TX 79414-4137; $2) is a better than average mini-comic by Johnny Gonzales and Floyd Choat: three tongue-in-cheek homages to the hardboiled, with pleasantly appealing art. Fun stuff, pretty decently written too.
I've been having a lot of discussions lately (like on boards that Rich Johnston isn't allowed on, haha) about format and comics: how the physical format of the standard comic book is an historical accident, supported now largely by tradition, that impacts the content but has little actual connection to it, and how format in new comics should be planned to fit the content and not the other way around. A good example of what I have in mind is Paul Louis Levy's LOOK AWAY (hippiehop productions, 1817 Fairmount Ave, Philadelphia PA 19130; $11.95), a slender, beautiful manipulated photo-comic that measures 4"x8" and compares favorably to the work of Dave McKean as Levy uses the medium to share a vivid hallucination with the reader. Gentle and lyrical, it doesn't so much tell a story as offers, in its own words, "a new way to see the world," and it largely succeeds. Great job.
Rounding out this week's books is ABEL (Ait/PlanetLar Books, 2034 47th Ave, San Francisco CA 94116; $12.95) a chilling tale of a young boy trying to survive World War II, and his sadistic brother and browbeating father, in rural Nebraska. I'm not crazy about the brown ink used for printing, and Mark Bloodworth's art is a bit stiff for my tastes (though more than up to the job), but William Harms' story, hinging on explosive brutality born of dead end lives, is a gutstomper. A strong piece.
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me 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.