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Issue #60

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #60

I’ve been writing recently about the public perception of the comics medium centering almost exclusively around superheroes, and how it has affected our ability to promote the medium to a wide audience. As I mentioned last week, the Baltimore Sun made the leap of covering other types of material and at least strongly imply that, not superheroes, was the new trend in comics. This theme has been picked up recently by The Los Angeles Times as well, in their review of Adrian Tomine’s OPTIC NERVE. My recent dealings with Hollywood suggest while comics material is hotter than ever – Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith’s vampire series 30 DAYS OF NIGHT was just scooped up for seven figures in a rare-for-Hollywood-these-days auction, with nary a costume in sight – the sense is that the market for superhero films, perhaps as Marvel preps to flood the market with them, is cooling.

But what was really strange was the “puff piece” done on Marvel on CBS’s 60 MINUTES II last Wednesday (8PM). 60 MINUTES has a longstanding and at least half-deserved rep as explosive muckraking TV, delivered for thirty years now in Mike Wallace’s trademarked grievous accusatory tones, but, as Michael Mann’s film THE INSIDER suggested, different segments are done for different reasons. Any primetime show is done for ratings, whether the news division does it or not, which is why shows like 60 MINUTES II don’t usually do stories about comic books. They’re considered “soft” news at best (without even the personality glitz of other entertainment media; I doubt there’s a tabloid in the world that cares who Frank Miller is sleeping with), and not enough people are interested in them. Movies are another matter, and I doubt it’s a coincidence that the piece airs in conjunction with Sony Video’s release of the SPIDER-MAN movie on DVD. One hand washes the other, and all that: Sony gets some free publicity for their movie and strengthens the brand identification, while CBS (theoretically) gloms onto at least part of the massive SPIDER-MAN filmgoing audience. Much of the report centered around two-thirds of Marvel’s current ruling troika – editor-in-chief Joe Quesada and president Avi Arad – and Marvel’s burgeoning movie empire. For the most part, they carried themselves well, and Marvel certainly came across as the latest thing in cinema. Which is probably just what they wanted.

Be careful what you wish for.

Marvel’s trying hard these days to re-project an image of the place where it’s all happening: young and hip, just like in the golden days of Marvel. That image was pretty well undercut from the report’s inception, when the show cited superheroes as a long-dead craze from “50 years ago” (60, 35 or 10, but not 50).

But now they’re back.

Just not in comics.

Any “youth” angle was likewise obliterated by immediately trotting out Stan Lee and labeling him the creator of Spider-Man. Not that it’s not true and he doesn’t deserve the credit – he and Steve Ditko deserve all the credit they can get – but the guy was born in 1917. Like it or not, citing an 85 year old man as the creator of an icon just doesn’t project fresh and youthful. Following that, the piece makes no bones that comics are struggling, and the emphasis on Marvel movies suggests pretty strongly that Marvel’s looking to Hollywood for survival. Translation: superhero movies are where it’s at. Superhero comics, not so much.

Which is then driven home by the sudden appearance of Art Spiegleman and Chris Ware, straightforwardly driving home that superhero comics are relics of the past, and what’s really going on in comics these days is more intellectual, creator-owned graphic novels like MAUS (cited as an aberration when it first appeared and the comics mainstream now), ROAD TO PERDITION and JIMMY CORRIGAN. That’s where youth is (despite Spiegleman also getting on, he’s practically the song of youth next to Stan), that’s where the vitality of the form is. 60 MINUTES doesn’t flat out come out and say that, but it’s hard to miss the implication. The “graphic novel” is where what’s really happening, and superheroes aren’t part of that equation.

Then the show steers to the San Diego Convention, where they once again drive home the point that superhero comics fans are an endangered species now. Then they pop back over to Arad, who speculates on the billion dollars or so Hollywood will put in Marvel’s coffers, which, in conjunction with the rest of the report, re-emphasizes the role of Hollywood in Marvel’s survival, as they try to eke out an existence peddling a bunch of characters created decades ago – by a man, it turns out in the piece’s final spot, who has been cut out of the fruits of his labor.

This leads to the report’s creepiest moment, when Arad basically dismisses Stan’s role in Spider-Man (Ditko is again unmentioned) and insists even Stan would say he has gotten a fair shake, despite making nothing from the Spider-Man movie while the company is making tens of millions. Asked if he’s being screwed, Stan uncomfortably winces and stutters, then declines comment.

There’s no mistaking the meaning of that silence.

Bringing the bizarre point in comics history where Stan Lee is the national poster boy for creator rights. If there’s anyone who would seem to merit little concern on that score, it’s Stan Lee, who, as head of Marvel Comics and Marvel Productions was certainly well-compensated for his work, and who, in the same capacity, didn’t push for (or, from all appearances, even consider) the creator rights or participation of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and other artists and writer/artists who were as pivotal as Stan in the creation of Marvel’s core (and still strongest) characters. I’ve heard some comment that it’s hypocritical of Stan to even suggest (by omission, as it was) he should share in Marvel’s profits from their successful exploitation of Spider-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men and other characters. That’s arguably true, but it’s equally hypocritical of creator rights supporters to turn away from Stan because of that; either you believe in creator rights or you don’t, and if you do then you believe all creators are entitled to them regardless of their circumstances. And that means Stan should be getting filthy rich off his own creations if other people are. And, on a practical note, Stan Lee is the person the general public most associates with comic books. He has spent forty years relentlessly promoting that association. If we were equally interested in promoting creator rights in comics, there’s virtually no one better to make a case to the general public than Stan Lee, and the best part is that we don’t need his cooperation to make his case for him. CBS already did. It’s there for anyone to exploit if they choose to.

(If I were Marvel, I’d do a pre-emptive strike by bringing Ditko back into the picture and, citing all the money Stan has made from the franchise over the years while Ditko made nothing, making a grand gesture of a payoff that, given his absolutist politics, he’s almost certain to refuse. Of course, the potential for a swerve is always there, but with Ditko that’s also unlikely.)

The piece’s last moment – Stan dismisses his oft-repeated line “with great power comes great responsibility” as a basically meaningless whim never intended to provoke such resonance – suggests once again the relic nature of superhero comics: not thriving concerns, but shallow cast-offs of a distant past that may be able to feed a new movie genre, but little else.

I imagine Marvel got what it wanted from the segment: promotion of the notion they’re now a Hollywood powerhouse. (Which is true enough, though my own sources in Hollywood suggest there’s a sense of superhero oversaturation there now and, while the town’s still going after comics material with a vengeance, they’re getting nervous about pursuing more superheroes until at least a few other superhero movies get released and audience response can be checked.) But the comics division, despite Joe’s clever comment about caveman storytelling, came off as frail and disconnected, not a thriving concern: pure nostalgia. For those who have been discussing the cultural irrelevance of the superhero, CBS made the argument better (and nicer) than anyone else has. Ultimately, Marvel got sandbagged.

Weird scenes inside the gold mine.

It’s been a weird election season, and I’m glad it’s over. Campaigns were oddly issue-less, the Democrats, determined not to give Republicans any fodder to use against them in 2004, officially decided they stood for absolutely nothing except not being Republicans. (In some races, as in other recent elections, some Democrats decided to take the Joe Lieberman stance and try to prove they were more Republican than their Republican opponents.) Not that Republicans, at least in the ads I saw, seemed to be trying to run on much more than “We’re not Democrats.” One local ad complained of the Democrat candidates weakness of characters and lack of accomplishment, then cited the Republican candidate’s “achievements” – without actually mentioning what they are. Most others ran along the lines of “______________’s brother’s boss’s cousin once got drunk at his high school prom. When questioned about this, _______________ said ‘What’s it got to do with me?’ ASK __________________ what it has to do with him, and ask yourselves – is this a man who can make the streets safe for our children? Vote for [opposing candidate], because he has kids of his own.” It’s campaigning by quantum-leap cult logic. Enough.

At any rate, you’d think Democrats would be tired after all these years of letting themselves be defined by Republicans. It hasn’t served them well at all, but there you have no less than Hilary Clinton, “setting aside” her doubts about military action against Iraq because she doesn’t want Bush calling her Jane Fonda when she runs for president in 2004. (The shadow of George McGovern still falls on the Democrats.) Which is one of the real tragedies of the loss of Paul Wellstone: alone among liberals, he touted his politics as a badge of honor, never hid them, was never afraid to speak them, and it got him elected, with re-election highly likely had he not died. Maybe Democrats would do better in political races if came up with some workable platforms and trotted out there as good alternatives to Republicans instead of namby-pamby Republican half-clones. Certainly there’s a level of disgruntlement in the American populace they could’ve tapped into if they had really wanted to. Compare this to the Republican mythmaking of being the ones standing valiantly against “the powers that be” when they’re the powers that be! The quandary of American politics is that it has become less about solving problems than winning, and the best most races do is pit candidates who deserve to lose against candidates who don’t deserve to win.

Unusually for TV series these days, Fox’s 24 (Tuesday 8PM) turned out to be worth the wait. And while I never thought I’d be grateful to the Ford Motor Company for anything (ancestral patriarch Henry Ford’s love of fascism aside, does anyone actually enjoy driving Fords?), I have to applaud the company’s bookending of the hour with mini-movie product ads to make the first hour of this season’s 24 a commercial-free event. Lots to catch up on: since last season ended a year ago his time, hero Jack Bauer has gone for that job-free Unabomber look to mope about his dead wife and pine for connection to his now-estranged daughter, working as a nanny for a man who turns out to be a monster. (The man’s forcibly smiling wife gives away the game early on by telling Kim Bauer she’s the best nanny they ever had, suggesting quite a parade of them – and why would that be, hmmm?) Sure enough, it’s not long before Kim’s being smacked around again, but Jack’s got no time to worry about that: President Palmer, whose life Jack saved on the campaign trail last season, becomes aware Islamic terrorists are planning to nuke Los Angeles, and wouldn’t y’know only Jack Bauer can stop them?

So now we’ve got you basic Made-For-TV-Tom-Clancy-Novel in the works. But it’s the characters who make all this overblown nuttiness seem real. Kiefer Sutherland proves himself again by carrying off the slingshot personality of Jack Bauer: initially refusing to contact his former bosses at CTU, Jack leaps to answer the President’s call, then responds to the impending threat the way I suspect any of us would. He calls Kim and tells her to get the hell out of Dodge, then starts to leave himself. The site of a mother and child stirs his conscience as he starts to flee, but that moment of schmaltz triggers Jack’s terrifying transformation into his truly sociopathic “work” self, where anything in service of “the mission” is permissible. 24 has always been cheesily entertaining, but Jack’s transformation lifts the show to truly fascinating, driving home a point only half-heartedly made in the first season, that there are two Jack Bauer’s, one is a very very bad man, and both are needed for Jack to effectively handle the situations he’s thrust into. I hope the addition of commercials in subsequent episodes doesn’t throw off the pacing, which was superb in the first hour. Ratings on this one proved interesting as well: 24 came in second in the overnights, which cover viewership in key markets, but jumped to #1 for the hour when all the ratings were in late Wednesday; the general ratings, which cover the vast bulk of America, usually drop overall ratings levels, particularly for “fringe” networks like Fox. The ratings also indicate 24 is mainly watched by groups of people (how they figure that out I don’t know) as opposed to shows like CBS’s THE GUARDIAN, which apparently caters to lone viewers. Which means two things: 24 is this season’s party show – I wonder if someone will start a drinking game around every time Jack Bauer kills someone – and NBC, now buttressed only on Tuesdays by withering titan FRASIER (9PM), has officially lost its grip on the night. I know what I’m watching on Tuesdays from now on.

ER (NBC, Thursday 10PM) is another withering titan, reduced in its – what is this, its 112th season or something? – to running gags about Maura Tierney in a pulp cover nurse’s outfit. Sweeps weeks at ER are usually good reasons to not watch, as the show strives for guest Emmys with overwrought storylines and amped up weeper plotlines, personified by Sally Field’s past shots as a schizophrenic mom trying to balance her love for the children her condition screwed over with her need for independence. This year, however, November sweeps are a reason to watch, for the incredible Don Cheadle as a Parkinson’s sufferer pursuing a medical degree. Cheadle’s great, somehow bringing a sense of incredible human dignity to every role, even those that would seem contradictory to such characteristics. He’s often the only good thing in the movies he’s in – TRAFFIC and RUSH HOUR 2 spring to mind – and while there are other reasons to watch ER – mainly weekly doses of the terrific Mekhi Phifer, and Paul McCrane as bastard hospital chief Romano – Cheadle’s the reason to watch right now, since he’ll only be on three more weeks. He’s a great actor who should be getting tons more exposure, and, yes, I smell Emmy…

Though Geoff Klock titled his book HOW TO READ SUPERHERO COMICS AND WHY (Continuum Books, 370 Lexington Ave, NY NY 10017; $19.95), with even the most cursory reading it’s quickly clear this is, rather, a natural history of the post-superhero; his real fascination, as shown in the section where he essentially debunks the “redemptive” aspects of new traditionalist works like ASTRO CITY and KINGDOM COME, is with the fin-de-siecle demise of the traditional superhero, though he positions the book as the herald of a “fourth age” for the genre. On the one hand, it’s pretentious malarkey, invoking the likes of literary critics Harold Bloom and Slajov Žižek (quotes from them on unrelated subjects are liberally applied to comic books) to underpin interpretations of the eddies of hidden meanings in titles from THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS to PLANETARY that sometimes come across as Klock’s responses to Rorschach tests. On the other, it’s a fascinating exegesis of superhero semiotics, outlining how the main movement of the genre since its inception (and now closing in on its perfect reality) has been toward self-cannibalization, which some have chosen to call metafiction: fiction about being fiction. Ultimately, Klock doesn’t really explain why we should read superhero comics – I don’t know that being seduced to friendly fascism by Tom Strong is a good enough reason – but he does a pretty good job explaining why they are what they are and why they’re never likely to really ascend to anything else. An entertaining read, for those unlikely to get a headache from thinking too much about such things, and it’s nice for a change to see comics taken seriously as subjects of literary criticism. We could use more of it. (I’d be curious to see the talent covered herein comment on the accuracy of Klock’s interpretations.)

Somehow Tony DiGerolamo’s THE TRAVELERS (Kenzer & Co., Box 439, Stratford NJ 08084; $2.99@) has been coming out bi-monthly for over two years and I’ve never heard of it. It’s a medieval comedy-fantasy along the lines of Robert Asprin’s MYTH ADVENTURES, set on a parallel earth where magic exists and teleportation allowed the early colonization of the Western Hemisphere. The content indicates it’s tied into fantasy gaming somehow as well, but I’m not sure how. Dragons, elves, swordsmen, cranky kings, feudal politics with vaguely modern parallels – it’s pretty well done; DiGerolamo’s dialogue’s pleasantly breezy and often funny, and the Moreno brothers’ cartoony art, vaguely reminiscent of Joe Staton’s work, carries the story nicely. Not my favorite genre, but I like TRAVELERS well enough to suggest it if it’s yours. (DiGerolamo also supplies an amusing script to the Knights of the Dinner Table series EVERKNIGHTS, the first issue of which (Kenzer & Co., Box 439, Stratford NJ 08084; $2.99@) also sports a cover penciled by Michael Oeming and stylized art from Manny Vega. It’s along the same lines as TRAVELERS; if you like one, I imagine you’d like the other.)

What seems like a thousand years ago, after I’d read Richard Schickel’s exposé THE DISNEY VERSION, I wanted to do a comic called CITIZEN McDUCK, which was a biography of Walt Disney as the life of Scrooge McDuck done as a parody of Citizen Kane. The concept left every publisher I pitched it to gaping at me in horror. (I still get that with most things I pitch.) So Rich Kozlowski’s THREE FINGERS (Top Shelf Productions, Box 1282, Marietta GA 30061-1282; $14.95) comes as a bit of déjà vu for me, with the title cagily referencing both the toon nature of its focal character, Rickey Rat, and the tequila he’s reduced to sipping in his broken-down old age. Patterned after documentary filmmaking and cutting between spot interviews with various parties and historical footage, the book invokes a parallel Hollywood of the ’20s and ’30s where cartoon characters have a physical reality, and star “Rickey Rat” and filmmaker “Dizzy Walters” rise to the top together, only to be undermined by scandal. While the notion of “toons” operating side-by-side with humans in Hollywood isn’t exactly original (it dates at least as far back as Gary Wolf’s 1981 novel WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?), Kozlowski’s take is both a twisted love poem to Hollywood (and Hollywood cartoons in particular) and a critique of the way it twists and destroys the people it uses to generate its fantasies, underscored by the book’s Minnie Mouse stand-in speaking elliptically about what she was “asked to do” to assure her stardom. Sex is implied, then we find out what she really means, against a the backdrop of an alternate America turns out not so alternate at all. A strong, unsettling work – and Kozlowski’s portrayals of geriatric toons are truly unnerving.

Christmas is a-coming and the geese are getting fat, and that means it’s about time to suggest comics-related Xmas gifts. If you’ve got any suggestions – the more idiosyncratic, the better – break them down along the lines of 1) graphic novels (including trade paperbacks); 2) comic books; 3) media tie-ins (including books about comics or based on comics); and 4) accessories. Be sure to mention why it’d make a great Xmas present, and either e-mail me or run your list at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE (though it’s currently running under the name EVE OF DESTRUCTION, so if that comes up, don’t panic. You’re in the right place). Thanks.

Next week: something a little different. Be there.

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.

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