I have to hand it to Marvel; they're paying attention to those WWE tips on media manipulation. A few months back, the WWE (formerly the WWF, or World Wrestling Federation, for those who haven't been paying attention; they were sued out of their acronym by the World Wildlife Fund) drummed up tons of coverage by teasing an on-air marriage between two male wrestlers. The excruciating seriousness this was given by news organizations, not to mention self-appointed anti-gay cultural watchdog groups, was laughable, and only pointed up their ignorance of various American subcultures. As any wrestling fan could've predicted in a hot New York minute, Billy and Chuck not only never got married, but "came out of the closet" and announced during the ceremony they were both straight; it continues to amuse me that those who insist wrestling fans are all morons be "believe it's real" are the ones most likely to treat wrestling as though it's real. Wrestling fans, particularly these days, know it's a big con game (with, hopefully, exciting action) that they play along with. (As I've mentioned in other columns, even subcultures don't pay attention to, or try to understand the ground rules of, other subcultures. Gay activist group GLADD praised the "positive" efforts of the WWE without comprehending that the marrying wrestlers were heels and wrestling storylines are built on The Swerve, so it was even funnier, when the smoke cleared, to hear GLADD complain they'd been misled and used. Well, duh!: it's wrestling!)
For a couple weeks, the WWE milked this for all the publicity it was worth. Didn't do them any good in the long run, but, hey, as long as they spell your name right, right? (Which, in the WWF... er... E's case, they often didn't.) Taking a tip from the Vince McMahon playbook, Marvel recently let it "slip" that in their forthcoming western, RAWHIDE KID: SLAP LEATHER, the Rawhide Kid will turn out to be gay. (I believe this to actually be a Village People homage, but that's just me.)
The logical response to this, of course, would be "oh, that's nice" or "who gives a $#!+?" The press, of course, and "cultural watchdogs" went bananas.
It was a canny ploy on Marvel's part. They could make pretty any bold claim – for instance, that The Rawhide Kid is the first major gay character in comics (he isn't, and not even the first one to have his own title; one could even argue he isn't a major character, though you wouldn't know that watching the news) – and no news group, or even cultural watchdog, in the country would challenge it because a) none of them knows a damn thing about comic books and b) they were too busy fixating on the gay part.
CNN's backbiting political brouhaha show, CROSSFIRE, trotted out "both sides" of the issue, bringing in Andrea Lafferty of the ultraright Traditional Values Coalition to condemn the book, and, incongruously, Stan Lee to defend it. (Apparently no one told CNN that Stan really has nothing to do with Marvel anymore.) Typically, the show described The Rawhide Kid as "a gay superhero," perpetuating the myth that all comics are superhero comics. The "discussion" pretty much breaks down from there, with Lafferty basically saying "how can you justify corrupting children" (as if children – and highly impressionable children at that – are the modern audience for comics, and as if THE RAWHIDE KID targets them) and Stan basically trying to laugh the whole thing off, flinching long enough to say he has already told Marvel to remove an element Lafferty found particularly offensive. (Apparently no one told Stan he really has nothing to do with Marvel anymore.)
What I always wonder about these situations is this: since everyone knows no news show or critic actually bothers to research comics before pronouncing on them, why don't any of comics' "defenders" get aggressive and use that to our advantage? Let's face it: they think they can get up there and say any damn thing to put us on the defensive. But it doesn't have to be like that. Just ignore them and say whatever you want. They don't acknowledge our questions? Fine. We don't have to acknowledge theirs. The only thing anyone has to say to an Andrea Lafferty – the only thing – is "When was the last time you read a comic book?" Followed by "When was the last time you studied the comic book market?" Push them on it enough, and they'll have to admit never, or only slightly less. Because these people don't do research. (I'm talking about news organizations as well as watchdogs; news organizations will research the per capita income of Baghdad but they won't bother to check out the readership demographics of BATMAN.) They'll try to poo-poo the significance of their ignorance, but once they've admitted it, you shrug your shoulders and say, matter of factly, without accusation or triumph, "Then you don't know what you're talking about, do you?" No matter what they say past that point, you just reiterate that. Clean. Simple.
Yeah, I know. It doesn't get "our" point of view across. But these shows aren't for expressing points of view. They're for publicity. Period. They exist to drive up ratings by giving Americans a panic attack of the days. They're game shows, and if you're going to be on them, you might as well play them to win.
If media thinks they get to manipulate us, we get to manipulate them. And I congratulate Marvel for understanding that.
What was even more amusing about the Rawhide Kid "controversy" was the fallout from Trent Lott's toast to Strom Thrumond. (Slate, by the way, has a good article on the myth of how Thurmond repudiated his racist beliefs: he never has.) Lott made the admittedly vague statement that none of the country's problems of the last 50 years would've happened had Dixiecrat Strom unseated Harry Truman and won the White House in 1948. Presumably Trent meant Strom would never have allowed the CIA, McCarthyism or the Korean and Vietnam wars, but, just because Thurmond based his campaign on militant segregationism (i.e. keeping African-Americans in their place) and Lott has his own history of anti-integrationary votes and practices, it was generally concluded Trent Lott felt the demise of segregation was the root of all evil in latter 20th century America. The storm that followed has seen Lott repudiated by Republicans as well as Democrats, castigated by the White House (which couldn't just ride the moment but had to offset their mild condemnation of Lott with the message that public welfare can't mend the spirit, just in case some of their constituency might take the anti-Lott comments to mean the Hand Puppet was going soft on the poor), leading now to the strong possibility that Lott will be voted out as majority leader of the Senate. Which could make things very interesting. On the one hand, the White House would probably like to see that, as Lott has been critical of aspects of the Homeland Security measures, though not critical enough to vote against them. On the other hand, with his political ambitions squashed, Lott stands a good chance, if he loses his leadership post, of taking his ball and going home. Meaning the governor of Mississippi would select a new senator to replace him, and Mississippi's governor is a Democrat. There goes the Republican majority in the Senate. So the Republican party faces two possible outcomes: a diminishing of power (though, with Democrats at their weak-kneed worst these days, that's not much of a threat) or being tarred as rewarding racism.
What's amusing is that if the Rawhide Kid was instead revealed as black (while it would be a ludicrous transition, all it would take is a story showing he's a light skinned black who straightens and dyes his hair in order to pass, but a sudden burst of race consciousness gets him past that, and then the audience'd be past it as well, hopefully) there would most likely not have been one single news report on it. Certainly not moral watchdogs going on TV proclaiming that a black superhero would corrupt children. They wouldn't dare. Because such statements would be clearly identified as what they are: bigotry.
Virtually every criticism of gays today was leveled at African-Americans in times past. But, as Lott had driven home to him this week, integration's a fact of life in American now, and has been, however imperfectly, almost since the time Strom Thurmond's presidential bid bit the dust. Though things sometimes move with galling slowness (though opponents of the process would consider it galling speed) we are ever moving toward more integration, not less. Gays are already integrated – and often out – in most sectors of American society. Let it go.
Footnote: I'm thinking maybe African-Americans should rally around Trent Lott now, since he's gotten so apologetic the past few days. Saw a clip from his appearance on the Black Entertainment Network on the TODAY show this morning. Very entertaining. Claimed he didn't understand the significance of Thurmond's presidential run. Claimed he now knows how hurtful his comments were, and asked forgiveness. And dropped this bombshell: Trent Lott favors Affirmative Action! There's a football someone could really run with. Maybe African-Americans should save Trent Lott's political career but force him into being a spokesman for black issues – and to vote in favor of them! Very entertaining. Probably not worth the downside, though.
Speaking of gays: my CBR mate, gossipmonger Rich Johnston's column this week ran a story about artist Mike Miller claiming he'd been bounced out of DC assignments for being vocally anti-gay. (If true, considering Rich's former columns about how DC shut down THE AUTHORITY to prevent dissemination of images of gay couples in comics, I'd say this represents policy schizophrenia at DC. But I doubt it's true. Very few comics talents have been satisfied with the amount of work they've been getting lately.) This one bit caught my eye:
"These folks with their panties in a bunch then started a letter writing campaign and posted Bob Schreck's (a known and outspoken homosexual, and an extremely powerful group editor at DC) email address asking any and all to email him to get me blacklisted."
Scamp that I am, I called up Bob to read him the riot act. How dare he! How dare he! And y'know what?
Bob never heard of any letter writing campaign to get Miller bounced and never received a single letter. Of course, what do I know? I didn't even know Bob was "an outspoken homosexual." I knew he was gay, but outspoken? News to me. I don't know about extremely powerful either, but he is fairly strong. Give it a red light, Rich.
Don't forget: tonight's the two-hour season finale to AMAZING RACE (CBS, 9PM). Just to continue with this column's theme, at least one of the contestants is gay. (I'm not sure about Zach.)
Particularly in the wake of 9-11, there's been a lot of lip service paid to the concept of firefighters as the real heroes. There has even been the odd firefighter story in American comics, but, since DC's early FIREFIGHTERS issue of SHOWCASE, I can't think of one American comic highlighting the heroic firefighter on a regular basis. (Okay, there was Event Comics' ASH, but I said regular basis.) Over in Japan, Masahito Soda produced FIREFIGHTER!: DAIGO OR FIRE COMPANY M, now released as a trade paperback here by Viz Communications (Box 77010, San Francisco CA 94107; $15.95). It's an oddly unnerving book, shifting in heartbeats between slapstick comedy and tense drama, as aspiring fireman Daigo Asahina, who has dreamed of his new career since being saved from a fire as a child, steamrolls into a laid back fire station with the sort of over the top devotion and expectations that seem to be a staple of Japanese comedy. He's a great character, riding a rollercoaster of reactions as his fantasies of what the job ought to be slam up against reality, and he constantly has to reassess his situation. Unlike most American heroes, he credibly and consistently shows his own feet of clay before, often unwillingly, rising up again. He dismisses those whose actions don't correlate to his presumptions about behavior, he puts rivals on a pedestal mainly so he can aspire to surpass them, and in pretty much everything he does he's proven wrong. Yet he remains determined, with quicksilver shifts in emphasis, to make things right, and usually does. More to the point, he learns. Good book. Art's good too. I'm starting to feel like a broken record when I say I wish they could get it together to do books like this here. (However, given that in real life we've uncovered the syndrome of firemen starting fires themselves so they can aggrandize themselves by putting them out, since Daigo's so gung-ho, is so outspoken about wanting to fight fires, and given, like so many manga characters, to hysterically shouting at no one in particular, I know who I'd be watching carefully when a string of suspicious blazes breaks out if I were in his fire company.)
Hayao Miyazaki's SPIRITED AWAY is reportedly the best-selling cartoon feature ever, and it's not hard to see why. Miyazaki, who also did MY FRIEND TOTORO, KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE and PRINCESS MONONOKE, creates another shifting, dangerously attractive dreamworld, this one involving a young girl, moving to a new home with their family, as they get sidetracked into a demonic other place. Before she knows it, her parents have been transformed, as in THE ODYSSEY, into swine, and she's alone and hunted, with only one strange, not-quite-human boy to help her. Viz (Box 77010, San Francisco CA 94107) is publishing the adaptation of SPIRITED AWAY, by Yuji Oniki, Cindy Davis Hewitt and Donald H. Hewitt, in five volumes ($9.95@), and it's a really attractive product, gorgeously drawn and colored, and aptly capturing the mood of the movie. I have only one complaint: though I loved the ride, on reaching the end of Vol. 1 I really felt there wasn't much story for 167 pages. I look forward to a single volume edition.
Another project that might be helped immeasurably by a collected edition (which is reportedly forthcoming) is Ashley Wood's POPBOT (Idea+Design Works LLC, 2645 Financial Court Suite E, San Diego CA 92117; 7.99@). I reviewed the first volume a few months back, and, on viewing the third, I can't say my opinion has changed much. Wood's art is gorgeous, and somewhat more solid here than previously. But POPBOT still feels like a big pin-up book (which isn't necessarily a bad thing; Wood rips through a host of styles and techniques here, and makes a pretty good case for taking him seriously as an artist) and the story, such as it is, still comes across as gibberish. There's enough of a hint of a story here to make me wonder if it wouldn't coalesce better if I had it all in front of me, but until that day comes, the best judgment I can offer is that this is a book to look at, not read.
Flip that around for Steve Black and Dara Naraghi's AKA #2 (of 3) (Ferret Press, 600 Markview Rd, Columbus OH 43214; $2). Two female private detectives try to help their client retrieve blackmail material from her cheating husband, only to learn (via unethical means, which was a nice touch) that things are not what they seem. Naraghi's got a nice feel for detective stories and a good ear for unforced dialogue, but creator/artist Steve Black just can't draw. Not well, anyway.
One of my complaints with many mini-comics has been their lack of anything resembling a coherent story. Not so with Jeff Coleman and Stephen Greenwood-Hyde's PROGRESSIONS (Minerva City Publications, 108 3rd Ave #9, New York NY 10003; $1.50@), a series of vignettes now in its seventh issue, set in a pseudo-sci-fi place called Minerva City that could just as easily pass for modern Los Angeles. That's the only affectation here. This is a world of rock clubs, kung fu, ambitious groupies, mice, detectives and unexpected twists, and the shifting cast of characters makes the cumulative product seem like it's angling toward graphic novel status. The art's pleasantly understated as well. Worth a look.
Back to wrestling: over at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE, we're holding a Fantasy WWE Wrestling Tournament. It's in the second round this week, with Kurt Angle v. Al Snow, Chris Benoit v. Matt Hardy, Brock Lesnar v. Eddy Guerrero and Booker T v. Rey Mysterio Jr. If you go in for this sort of thing, head over there and vote. This week's four winners pair off next week (each round starts on a Sunday), and the winners of those matches go for the Graphic Violence championship. Hey, it beats most of what's on WWE programming these days.
Also don't forget to pre-order the MORTAL SOULS trade paperback (Avatar Press, but you should probably get your local retailer to preorder it for you instead). For those who came in late, I wrote it, Philip Xavier drew it, it's a horror-crime story with social critique overtones, and you'll like it. You don't have to take my word for it. Ask Comic Book Galaxy. Or Movie Poop Chute. Or just go to Google and type in MORTAL SOULS in exact phrase bar. Dig it. (Those preferring to order online will find great pre-order discounts at Preorder Comics/Grayhaven - if you include the message "PERMANENT DAMAGE sent me!" – and at Khepri.Com's Steven Grant page.)
Christmas in on Wednesday next week, so PERMANENT DAMAGE won't show up until Thursday. Take a look; I'll make it worth your while. See you then.
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.