Interesting month for comics, legally and culturally speaking. Lots of ups and downs. On the one hand, the WB's BIRDS OF PREY, a Frankenstein monster crudely cobbling a half-dozen castoff limbs from DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, KILLING JOKE and other sources onto something vaguely resembling the body of the DC comic BIRDS OF PREY, with a pretty enough face but no guts, no heart and no brains, was mercifully put to sleep by the network this last week. On the other, Stan Lee's lawsuit against Marvel for a piece of the take from SPIDER-MAN and other Marvel media properties started getting interesting, with accusations and denunciations flying back and forth. While various media continue to look more and more at "the graphic story medium," a couple major cases have gone more or less unnoticed by the world at large.
On the upside, Joe Simon. Along with Jack Kirby (or by himself, if you go by Simon's own version) Simon created Captain America in 1941. (Stan Lee, who would later be mistakenly given credit for Cap's creation, debuted in comics as the character's second editor, thanks to his uncle, publisher Martin Goodman, and a world war that send the previous editor into the military; little acorns and all that...) In 1999, Simon attempted to use a provision in the 1976 copyright revision act to regain ownership of Cap from Marvel, a move Marvel vigorously fought, as one might expect. Simon had a 1969 settlement from Marvel, the fallout of an earlier failed lawsuit against the company, that the court said gutted his case. Simon was screwed, and so, apparently, were numerous other creators who were watching Simon's case with an eye toward regaining their own creations from corporate overlords. Especially with Marvel countersuing Simon to collect their legal fees.
Until this November 7. In an appeals ruling, Judge Joseph McLaughlin ruled the 1969 agreement didn't take precedence over the 1941 agreement and pointed out that the 1976 copyright law establishes the "inalienable right" of creators (and their heirs) to their creations, regardless of other agreements.
Which means, basically, that the 1969 agreement may not be an impediment to Simon's reclamation of ownership of the character. Which means the legal struggle between Simon (now 87) and Marvel will go on.
The 1976 Copyright Act really does divide the geological time of the comics business. If McLaughlin's ruling holds true through later proceedings, pretty much any character created before 1976 will be fair game – at least once 56 years since the first publication, anyway. Post-copyright act is a different situation; you agree you're doing work-for-hire past that point, it's work-for-hire. (As I understand it, technically the legal concept of work-for-hire was actually created by the '76 act.) At this point, any character created before 1946 has to be considered fair game – and possibly their latter-day namesakes as well. ("The fruit of the poisoned tree," to cop a completely unrelated legal term.) If Martin Nodell, for instance, decides to push his claim on Green Lantern, or if Gardner Fox's estate went after the Flash, Dr. Fate, Hawkman and numerous other characters, or Bill Finger's estate, or Jack Kirby's estate, decide to follow Simon's lead – if Simon over the next couple of years actually succeeds in his suit – look for the landscape of both Marvel and DC to change drastically in the coming decade.
On the downside, Jesus Castillo didn't do so well in appeals. I was planning to discuss this, since I figured it had been covered in detail elsewhere, but I've gotten various letters about it and, checking the web, realized it hasn't really been discussed much at all. And it's one of the most important things currently happening on the comics scene.
The short version: Castillo's troubles began when an op-ed page letter in a Dallas newspaper accused his shop of corrupting youth by using POKEMON as a come-on to sell them violence and smut. The paper "accidentally" repeated the letter several times, then it ended up published by the PTA. Later Castillo was arrested for selling adult comics to two adults - an undercover cop and a PTA member. (I can't help wonder if the selection of Castillo's shop from all the comics shops in the Dallas area didn't have a racial angle as well.) The comics were held in an "adult" section of the store that underage customers weren't allowed access to, and were clearly labeled for adults only. The state contends the comics are so irredeemable even adults will be injured by reading them. Two counts of obscenity: five years and $20,000. Two convictions. The evidence of Castillo's innocence of the charges was overwhelming, at least if you're not a juror in Dallas. The first appeal last July was a split decision to uphold the verdict. At the beginning of November, a second appeal was denied without explanation. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund will try to take the case to the Supreme Court, which they admit may not be inclined to get involved in any obscenity rulings in the current political situation. (And some of you wonder why this column talks about politics. Answer: because politics affects us.)
Those who wrote me all pointed out the not-so-subtle undercurrent of this case is that the jury made the decision that all comics must be for children. I think they're missing the real point. Comics were involved here, but decisions like this, made under these circumstances, actually establish the ground rule that all culture must be for children. I've spoken about this before: the "infantilization" of American culture. All evidence indicates the action was prompted by a city councilwoman, apparently in collusion with the local newspaper (it would be interesting to see the results of an investigation into why the paper published the same letter of comment three times, though I imagine it's possible Texans just don't have a lot to say), looking to build a career on a decency crusade, and it strikes me there was triple-pronged reasoning involved. 1) The still fairly widespread notion, at least in some areas, of comics being "for kids" can be used to raise righteous indignation over comics not aimed at children, which these days is most of them. 2) Nobody really cares about comics, so an attack on comics isn't likely to raise the kind of First Amendment righteous indignation attacks on bookstores, strip clubs, music stores or rock concerts might. 3) Knocking off a local business for having "adult" material on the same premises as "kids" material – regardless of lack of access and regardless of any proof or even suggestion that "adult" material passed into the hands of children – is a clear threat to other businesses that might have similar setups.
At any rate, this continues to prove one thing I've been stating for 12 years, since the time many comics companies were considering banding together to establish a businesswide "ratings system" or "labeling system" to differentiate "adult" from "juvenile" material in order to protect shop owners from crusading district attorneys and other would-be censors: not only do the latter not care about the distinctions, labeling and ratings systems make their jobs easier by allowing them to immediately hone in on material to persecute. It clearly doesn't matter to them whether shops are taking steps to keep adult material out of the hands of juveniles or not. They want it all gone. They want all culture to be made safe for children because the end result is to make children of all of us, and then they get to be the parents.
And if you learn no other lesson from Castillo and numerous others who've felt the capricious sting of the state's "justice" system, take this one home: if you're going to be on trial, make sure it's not in Texas.
"... good God yes, the technology! A hundred years ago measuring the time it took the hammer on the last eighth of an inch of tape down to fifty-one hundred-thousandths of a second? Not for some great breakthrough in medical science no, not for advanced weapons design or aero, for aerodynamics no, for entertainment, for pleasure in its highest form to entertain Plato's educated elite, widening the gap yes, between Huizinga's eighteenth century, when aesthetic pleasure in the worship of art was the privilege of the few, and this democracy of every man his own artists where we are today, this democracy of Plato's chance persons and having art without the artist because he's a threat, because the creative artist has to be a threat so he's swamped by the performer by the, by the pantomimic by the imitative who is not a threat see it right here in the, right here in Jung yes from the depths of his Swiss hypocrisy he's an inveterate democrat he says but nature is aristocratic, that it's elitist and so is he, Quod licet Jovi he quotes, non licet bovi draws the line right there doesn't he? An unpleasant but eternal truth he called it what's so damned unpleasant about it? Eternal truth that's what it's all about isn't it?..."
My favorite novelist is William Gaddis, who died in late 1998, a spirit of the 20th century in the way Warren Ellis made out several of his characters to be. He only published four novels in his lifetime – THE RECOGNITIONS (to my mind, the greatest novel of the 20th century); JR; CARPENTER'S GOTHIC; and A FROLIC OF HIS OWN. Gaddis' themes were the themes of our culture, the eternal struggle not of good and evil but of art and commerce, and the feeling of loss that continues to haunt us no matter how much we attain, and his language is a masterwork of stuttering, false starts, blind corridors and abrupt swerves that somehow encapsulate his blistering ideas and criticisms better than straightforward prose ever could. Even the characters he vilified and mocked come off as complex, fragile beings. Reading Gaddis can be daunting, since he writes like no one else, and getting into his prose sometimes takes effort. Then you're suddenly caught in his rhythms and roaring along on his tailwind. (JR and CARPENTER'S GOTHIC were like that for me, though I breezed through THE RECOGNITIONS the first time I read it; I returned successfully to CARPENTER'S GOTHIC some three years after an initial failed attempt, and to JR after almost 20 years.)
So it's great to have "new" work from Gaddis. AGAPª AGAPE (Viking Penguin, 375 Hudson St, New York NY 10014) is really a rant disguised as a short novel, one 98 page block of unbroken text, but it plows through all of Gaddis' obsessions with dizzying speed and style, a history of the democratization and destruction of art from Plato to John Kennedy Toole, all but abandoning the inherent characteristics and restrictions of the modern novel, like plot and character. But Gaddis is no ordinary ranter; he spends as much time purposely undercutting his own arguments and dogging the edges of his prejudices that the reader is left with madness and hope to find his own directions. As always, Gaddis doesn't pretend to have the answers, which is fine. He was, he ultimately admits, just a man, and just as full of contradictions and foibles as any man. But reading Gaddis is one of the purist rushes I know, and though AGAPª AGAPE feels vaguely unfinished (and I suspect it technically is), I hope there's more coming. (A collection of essays called THE RUSH FOR SECOND PLACE has also been released, but I haven't seen it yet and hope someone sends it to me for Xmas.) Even dead, Gaddis is a better writer, and more in tune with our time, than almost anyone else.
Jareth Grealish, Evan Young, Jonathan Luna and James Taylor wrap up their THE FORGOTTEN mini-series (Fintan Studios, 27 Fair Oaks Ct, Newtown PA 18940; $2.95) with #4. I coined the term "post-superhero" a couple years ago to delineate the new breed of action-adventure comics that are sloughing off many of the traditional aspects of superhero comics in a search for something new concealed at the core of the concept, and THE FORGOTTEN (along the lines of Brian Bendis & Mike Oeming's POWERS) is literally a post-superhero story, about superhero who has given up the cape, so to speak, to become, for lack of a better term, a private detective. It's a pretty good ending, nicely tying up all the ends, though the parallel branches of the story – the hero's search of a killer and a reporter's search for the hero – never really connect; the subplot ultimately amounts to nothing. The art grows a little more polished and adventurous each issue, and though it's not quite professional caliber yet, it's getting there quickly. My real quibble with THE FORGOTTEN is that, when the dust settles, it really doesn't do or tell us anything new. Grealish, Young & co. should work on that for the next mini-series, but, for this one, they did all right.
Legendary gunslinger Doc Holliday is back for more in Dave Samuelson & Jason Wright's HOLLIDAY #4 (Saddle Tramp Press; $3), the first part of a new arc called "Cold Deck." The series mingles historical fact with horror fiction; the first arc featured Holliday and arch-rival Johnny Ringo vs. three of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, while this seems to be pitting Doc against a lycanthropic serial killer, though that's not certain so far. The art is stronger here than on previous issues, with more authenticity – Holliday's portrayal now seems to owe much to Kirk Douglas' portrayal in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL – and the writing's far more confident and accomplished. A few weeks ago I heard from a reader who lamented the apparent inability of comics to do westerns that weren't crossed with horror comics, and while I generally agree with that criticism, HOLLIDAY comes very close to redeeming the concept.
Last week's review of CREATURE TECH, notably my quibble about the unnecessary religious elements which seemed tacked onto the story, prompted this letter:
"I tried posting this on the Permanent Damage board, but for some reason, despite my being registered, it wouldn't allow me. Anyways, I thought your observations on CREATURE TECH were rather interesting. I liked the weird mad-scientist/alien eels etc. stuff as you did, and was quite irked at the religious underpinnings. I'm quite sure that tenNapel is a believer in Intelligent Design Creationism, which, as you may know, is the Creationists' new attempt to get their thinking into schools and publicly respected. CREATURE TECH is full of their ideas: the emphasis on being a "naturalist" at the beginning of the book which is later shown to be foolish; the idea that people who accept religious "evidence" for the nature of things are more open-minded than skeptics are. These are things argued for by Philip Johnson, who essentially founded IDC. Likewise, Michael Behe, a biochemist, and William Dembski, a mathematician/philosopher, are the two other most prominent IDC people. The three of them get noted in the dedication at the beginning of the book. This is all to say that my own suspicion for why the religion is in the book is not because the author wanted to give it the patina of seriousness or weightiness, but because he actually believes all that stuff.
"One disturbing note: After I read CREATURE TECH, I posted a message on Usenet asking if anyone else had noticed the IDC aspects of it. I didn't get any responses at all. Considering how positively reviewed that book was by the online community, I have to admit I was rather disturbed by the silence. But then I suppose there can't be that many people who read CREATURE TECH in any case.
"There's a book called INTELLIGENT DESIGN CREATIONISM AND ITS CRITICS ed. by Robert Pennock, which contains articles written by both sides. It's weighted on the side of the critics, but it does contain all the elements of the debate. It's pretty heavy going, though. I found some of the philosophy too much to wade through. For those, however, who really want to dig into these matters, it might be something to look at."
Sorry I missed the IDC elements in CREATURE TECH, but I haven't been keeping up with the latest Creationism scams anymore than I keep up on the latest developments with phlogiston.
Congratulations to Tokyo Pop for cribbing the top ten slots in Bookscan's graphic novel charts. This should be another wakeup call to those who believe Marvel and DC still dominate the American comics scene. More notably, Tokyo Pop's output – I've complimentarily reviewed MARMALADE BOY and WISH here – is strongly tilted toward a female readership most homegrown comics companies still vehemently deny exists. How many times does it have to be beaten over the head before the American comics industry learns a lesson or two?
If you haven't read BADLANDS already – the crime graphic novel I did with Vince Giarrano in the '90s that was recently re-released by AiT/PlanetLar Books (and, let's face it, it's the perfect stocking stuffer for any crime or conspiracy buff on your Xmas shopping list) – Greg McElhatton gives you great incentive with a rave review this last Monday at his excellent review site IComics. If you're still not sold on BADLANDS, Greg has tons of other great comics and graphic novels for you to check out.
I need to reiterate that AVATAR PRESS is issuing the MORTAL SOULS trade paperback in February. It's a crime comic. It's a horror comic. It's social critique. It's three books in one and the only way to be sure you get a copy – particularly those of you who told me you were skipping the comics version and would read it when the trade paperback came out – is to ask your dealer to order it now. Right now. Do it when you hit the shop for your comics pickup today. (Reviewers: remember you can contact William Christensen at AVATAR PRESS for review copies.) I'd also like to remind everyone that WRITE NOW! (TwoMorrows Publishing; $8), for comics and animation writers, is now on sale, with articles by Erik Larsen, Lee Nordling and many others, including me. Buy it at your local comics shop, and look for the next issue in January. (I should have another piece there.)
Meanwhile, for those who care, my computer's still not fixed yet, though I've been able to determine the FAT table on my main drive is what went south, not the drive itself, which appears to be in perfect working order. (I also suspect my ancient motherboard is slowly failing as well, since the hard drive controller on it stopped working ages ago, to be replaced by a controller card.) While learning the ins and outs and sheer limitations of Microsoft's rescue utilities (basically, they're crap) has been entertaining, the situation is complex enough that I have to wait for a large block of time – probably around Xmas – to deal with it. It's not that tricky, it's just going to take time and a little mechanical skill.
I'm not sure why, but November's hits on this column jumped through the roof. I can't think of anything I did differently, but I want to thank the many new (or, for all I know, returning) readers for checking us out, and I hope you stick around. It can't be too crowded here. By the way, next week I'll be running the Xmas gift suggestion list and another review round-up.
Finally, it's Thanksgiving, so I'd like to wish all my American readers a nice holiday, and everyone everywhere else in the world should have a nice Thursday.
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.