Issue #62

Vulgar, self-serving hype department:

[Mortal Souls]About a year ago I wrote a book for Avatar Press called MORTAL SOULS. It's a crime-horror story about a cop hunting a female serial killer, only to find out the people she's killing are already dead, the dead rule the world, and they hate us. Frankly, it got great reviews.

I don't know how much horror Grant's written in his career, but this book plays to his strengths. We have a hard-boiled, hardheaded protagonist in Detective Eric Sharpe, who finds he has the ability, THEY LIVE-style, to see the walking dead among us. A sort of avenging angel aids him and shows him the ropes, while he tries to avoid getting killed. What makes it tougher is that his partner is in league with these zombies, though he doesn't know it yet. So far, like much of Ellis' Avatar work, this is a nice little three-act horror B-movie... - Chris Allen, Movie Poop Shoot

Steven Grant's new Avatar series won't seem unfamiliar to anyone who's been reading Ellis's efforts for the publisher, but it manages to set itself apart by making its hero a little more human and a little more likeable. It's about a world filled with zombies almost no one can see, and a cop who receives the ability to see them while investigating an apparent murder of one of them... It's the script that is the big draw, here, though… violent stuff, not for the squeamish... Grant packs an amazing amount of story into this standard-sized comic... if you're looking for an intelligent horror comic with a solid mythological basis, this one fits the bill nicely. - Alan David Doane, Comic Book Galaxy.

Aside from complaints about the heroine's costuming, if anyone who read it didn't like it I never heard about it. I've had Hollywood crawling all over it, and am now waiting to hear if an option's about to turn into green light. (Optioning to Hollywood means nothing in itself, but a green light is golden.) But every damn time I tried to pimp the thing online, the response from potential readers was: "I'll wait for the trade paperback."

To everyone who said that to me, guess what?

Time to put your money where your mouth is. In February, Avatar Press is releasing the MORTAL SOULS trade paperback. Orders are being placed now. I can't afford to be shy or modest about it. Order it. Demand it from your dealer by name, because he's probably not going to think to order many copies otherwise, even though it's a Featured Item in the December PREVIEWS, with graphics galore. Read the story before you see the movie this time.

If you're a reviewer and you want the three issues of MORTAL SOULSfor review, contact William Christenson at Avatar Press and he'll get them right out to you. (If you'd rather talk to him on the phone, e-mail me your phone number and your credentials and I'll pass them on to him.)

Self-serving hype over. On with the show.

The desktop computer's still on the fritz. (I want to emphasize for anyone who missed it last week that I did not lose any data, since I keep my data on a different drive from my program drive). Turns out it's not a drive problem – I did a diagnostic on the drive and it's working perfectly – so something seems to have eaten the FAT tables and possibly damaged the partitions. I'm letting Windows repair the damage, at least to the point where I can install Windows again, but it's taking awhile, and it'll be at least a couple weeks before I can get everything up fully running again.

With computers on my mind, I went down to Comdex, the five day computer product exposition that started Monday at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Comdex is the San Diego Comic-Con/Comic-Con International of the computer industry, but, unlike San Diego, the show's in trouble. The 9-11 attacks cut last year's attendance down to around 150,000, and the continued slump in the tech sector cut this year's attendance to a reported 100,000. Rumors are swirling it's the last one under the present management, KeyMedia, reportedly edging toward bankruptcy, though that may not spell the end of Comdex itself, since rumor also has it the show's founder is buying Comdex back from KeyMedia for about 7% of what they paid him for it a few years ago. We shall see.

As with comics and San Diego, if the computer business is in a slump, you couldn't tell it by the Comdex floor Monday. A mob scene. Of course, Monday's trick-or-treat day, when all the companies hand out promotional items: pens, free software, keychains, stress release toys, notepads, keychains, carry bags, gobs and gobs of magazines and a seemingly infinite variety of candy. There are drawings for cars, equipment, LCD monitors. Among the coolest giveaways: a pocket 8-in-1 tool (no idea), full-function data recovery software (Fujitsu, a desk memo holder made of an alligator clip on a stiff wire mounted on a Lucite block (CP Tech), full tins of pseudo-Altoids (Tek Systems), and a bendable pen made from a steel spring (Serial ATA). Most politically-unaware giveaway: a keyring with a plastic key that hides a box cutter. Most ironic giveaway: the Chinese government, in town to drum up tech sector interest in China, gave away 2003 Scenic Tibet calendars. Which really are quite beautiful.

Like most trade shows these days, Comdex is sending mixed messages. Microsoft magnate Bill Gates opened the show with the bold message that computing is roaring back, but many of the major players were absent. Apple had no noticeable presence. Component manufacturers, particularly for things like hard drives and motherboards, were hard to come by, though they were strongly in evidence last year. Where were Western Digital and Asus, Maxtor and Soyo? Like Marvel and Diamond at San Diego this summer, microprocessor kings Intel skipped their own display area and instead took a tiny booth inside Microsoft's expansive subdivision, wile Intel's main competitor AMD was only visible via a video kiosk in the lobby. Gates and Microsoft, along with companies like Toshiba and Hewlett-Packard, are pushing the new Tablet PC, a sort of notebook computer with a gymnastic screen that pivots around so you can write on the screen with a stylus and input data that way.

But no one was talking about them, except for the general view that they're too expensive ($1600-$2500) and too buggy. The hot tech of Comdex 2003 is:

1) USB2. At the dawn of the computing age, everyone had their microprocessor is this case over here, and a floppy drive would cable to it here, etc. Everything was in pieces. USB2 is the new standard for peripherals that takes computing back to those days, so instead of having a monster computer holding all your hard drives, optical drives, sound card, modem, etc., you can instead have those all over your desk and connect it to your computer via cable. On the surface, this sounds like a big step backward – a reason USB 1.1 never really caught on – but under current conditions it's really a huge step forward, and not just in speed. (USB2 is some 40x faster than USB1.1, and faster in many applications than its main competitor, IEEE 1394/Firewire, which is mainly used with video applications.) Today it's not unusual for a household with one computer to have several, or for a businessman to have a desktop computer, a notebook computer, a computer at home, etc. The big advantage of USB is you can now buy, say, one 120 meg hard drive or one 40x CD-RW drive, and very easily move them between computers. Cheaper than buying two or three, and effective, particularly for data transference. Which brings us to...

2) Thumb drives. These go by a variety of names. They're electronic hard drives, running from 32 megs to a gig in capacity, about the size of a keychain penknife, that plug into an available USB or USB2 slot, usually without any need for drivers. You can carry them in your pocket, or on your keychain, to easily move data between computers. A friend of mine in the computing business tells me they're a security nightmare; five minutes of access can get you your competitors' entire databases or spreadsheets. As prices come down, they're expected to replace the floppy drive. A cool and easy way to do backups too. You can even set up a thumbdrive "key" that must be inserted into your computer's USB2 drive before your computer will boot, which is a great security tool if there's not some ridiculously simple way around it. (Which there often is when it comes to hi-tech; see below.)

3) Wireless. This has been a growing tech sector for years, and it's going stronger than ever. Everything's going wireless: keyboards, mice, game controllers, monitors, speakers. There are some security issues here too, but the appeal of not being tied to a desk seems to be grabbing hold, esp. with 2.4 gig and 5.8 gig technologies expanding the range of movement farther and farther. If they haven't already, I imagine it won't be long before someone invents a "notebook" consisting of a monitor and keyboard that wirelessly connect to a distant computer so, say, everyone in an office can "take their work" down to the general meeting and stay connected to their desks while the meeting's in progress. A real growth area, particularly in corporate environments where traditional computer sales have been sluggish at best.

4) Biometrics. Everywhere you went at Comdex, companies were pushing the latest in fingerprint recognition technology, voiceprint technology, retina scanning technology. Never mind that it doesn't actually work very well. In these anti-terrorist minded days, everyone wants it anyway. The problem with all this stuff is that, like voice recognition and page recognition software, it has generally shoddy accuracy in the wild, though companies can always seem to make it work in highly controlled tests. (Kind of like how the army can win a dummy war against Iraq if they get to set all the ground rules.) But everyone wants it.

So that's 2002 in technology, I guess. Comdex is a gas if you can stand the crowds and all the walking. It'd be a shame if this were the last year. After all, you can never have too many promotional pens...

If anyone ever doubted the "war on terrorism" was really little more than a corporate entitlement program, the new homeland security bill Congress is ramming through to create a Cabinet-level Office Of Homeland Security should crush those doubts. Over here, there's a clause protecting drug companies against lawsuits regarding faulty vaccines. (Which would be fine if it covered vaccines prepared quickly to protect against imminent terrorist threat, but the language is vague enough to cover all vaccine production.) Over there, the allowing of corporations to relocate to offshore tax havens and still be eligible for government contracts. Over there, freeing airport security screening companies from the obligation to actually do their jobs properly. Over there, shoveling homeland security funds into Phil Gramm and the Hand Puppet's home state of Texas for a campus "research center."

Not to mention the Dept. Of Homeland Security's secrecy protection and basic removal from oversight.

Of course, the White House still hasn't defined what an Office Of Homeland Security will do as much as it has stated what it won't do: oversee the FBI and CIA to prevent the blunders, blinders and miscommunication that scrapped and buried so much pre-existing intelligence related to the 9-11 attacks. And that's an investigation the administration still doesn't want undertaken.

It's kind of amusing to see the Democrats – some of them, anyway – standing up on their hind legs after all this time, even if their objections went swiftly down to defeat. (Objector GOP senator Arlen Spector said he'd "swallow hard" and vote to scrap the objections.) If the various provisions smack of payback for the campaign finance largesse of drug companies and other groups, the Democrats' objections smacked of petulant revenge for their trouncing in the polls earlier this month. You can almost hear (as Democratic voters pretty soundly reject Al "the only issue is that I got robbed" Gore as a 2004 presidential candidate in a recent pole – oh, wait, he got 50% of that vote, too, and y'know what? It's still another major loss for him.) post-election campaign managers in the background whispering in their ears, "Voters want you to stand up to the President. Make it look like you're standing up to the President." Which is probably being harsh on the Democrats, but after all their stumbling, fumbling and knuckling under, it's hard to believe they're actually acting on principle. Which is perhaps the biggest perception problem the Democrats have now.

Speaking of perception problems, ABC News ran an article on comics recently guaranteed to generate violently mixed feelings. Basically a laudable piece by Bryan Robinson on the New York City Comic Book Museum and their efforts to preserve our little piece of Americana, it also rehashes my own complaint about the public image of comics from a few weeks ago: "When some people think of comic books, they rarely think of stylish art complemented with complex and carefully crafted storytelling. They think comic panels with illustrated bubbles containing the dialogue of the characters and words like 'Blam!' 'Pow!' and 'Zap!'"

What's screamingly annoying about the piece is the confusion it instills by attempting "balance." The upshot is supposed to be the old comics aren't just for kids anymore, a message that, well past a decade after MAUS, WATCHMEN and BLACK KISS, shouldn't even need repeating and which, repeated as often as it is on news stories now, bears all the weight of Remember those 'funny books' your mother threw out? They're worth a lot of money now!, which was the staple of any mainstream comics reporting before the collectors' market bottomed out. In the ABC piece, one fan is quoted as saying "It's always been seen as a child's medium," while another basically validates that attitude by insisting "Comic Books are a purist form of escapism." They cite the lingering specter of Frederick Wertham as something still holding comics back, though that's mostly an apparition the comics industry has used to justify holding back more than any real influence, at least for the last ten years or so. Mostly, though, despite talk of sophisticated adult storylines and even mention of MAUS and ROAD TO PERDITION, the piece bolsters the notion that comics = superheroes, mostly by streamlining the history of comics (and the current comics scene) to include virtually nothing else.

Well, what do you expect from ABC? One step forward, two steps back. At least its heart was in the right place.

Increasingly I've been reading graphic novels that I like but which bother me. Doug TenNapel's CREATURE TECH (Top Shelf Productions, Box 1282, Marietta GA 30061-1282; $14.95) is at once an example of everything that's good and bad about comics today. Lovingly drawn in latter day Eisner, CREATURE TECH, if I remember correctly, started existence as a failed TV pitch (the graphic novel supposedly generated a million dollars worth of interest on auction to film studios) but doesn't really show its pedigree. Aided by a demon cat, a 19th century English scientist calls a giant eel from the sky, only to die, along with cat and eel, when he loses control of it. A century later, a seminarian turned Nobel-winning scientist is placed by the government in charge of a "weirdness" investigation institute – the eponymous "Creature Tech" – in outback California, where he inadvertently leads the English scientist's ghost to the Shroud of Turin, and suddenly the town is swarming with ten foot tall humanoid grasshoppers, monster cats, alien mummies, chitinous symbiotes, and action, action, action. In some ways, this is a near perfect expression of what Warren Ellis called "the pop comic": a litany of mad ideas pumped out at top speed. There's a pleasant, fairly unobtrusive humanism underlying it all, and TenNapel has a way of making the utterly ludicrous seem totally natural; not much need for suspension of disbelief here. On the other hand, aspects of the book feel luridly antiquated as well, stretching more toward the past than the future. TenNapel implies there's a spiritual quest involved – the scientist learning to find God and mystery again (and certainly there are enough alien contacts with the Almighty in the book) – but that aspect feels like a sham, something tacked on to add "weight." Like most presentations of "spirituality" in comics are. Aside from the Shroud of Turin, a Marx Brothers-ish plot device in the story that almost becomes another character but is never really explained (with the implication that only the presence of the divine could explain its much-abused power), you could strip out any references to God altogether and still have the same story. In the end, it's really just an adventure story, and a love affair with monsters. Shouldn't that be enough?

Then there's Mark Ricketts' NOWHERESVILLE (Image Comics, 1071 N. Batavia St. Suite A, Orange CA 92867; $14.95), a good crime novel set against a 50s NYC Beat backdrop, with a Dharma bum detective and a hipster journalist unraveling a series of murders. The art's pretty variable, shifting between a sort of ur-Rizzo sketchiness, especially in the long shots, and lovingly rendered Dave Stevenish close-ups. The episodic story's a bit disjointed – it reads to some extent like a series of vignettes strung together at the eleventh hour – and the conclusion's a little unsatisfying (I hate it when the culprits explain their schemes just to make sure everyone gets what's going on) but Ricketts has a nice ear for dialogue and knows how to use it to create a sense of place without laying on the jive too thick, daddy-o. But what bothers me about the book is that there's also nothing in it that requires the presence of that era. The story could easily be done modern day with almost no changes. The setting plays like a gimmick, an affectation. Like CREATURE TECH, it seems to be unnecessarily trying to get some rub, some credibility, from what are really extraneous elements. Still worth a read, though.

Remember to e-mail me your comics-related Xmas gift suggestions. The holidays are approaching.

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.

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I'm reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

If you want to know something about me, you can probably find the answer at Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. Be warned that this site is functionally dead – I've switched to a different server and am prepping a new page – but it's still up and the backstory details are still germane even if the news page is a bit dated.

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