I heard a couple decades ago that what a con man looks for in his marks isn't stupidity, naivete or even greed – some very wise and generous people have been taken in by con men – but loneliness. Seems to me it's gotten to the point that pretty much everything is geared toward preying on loneliness; everyone's supposed to be obsessed with the idea of community, with jumping into step. "Fashion, move to the left; fashion, move to the right" as David Bowie put it. Not that it's anything new. Was watching A HARD DAY'S NIGHT the other day, a film I've seen more times than any other (mostly due to a fortnight when I was a film projectionist where I handled four showings per day of it and even under that concentrated barrage it held up and still does), and I got to my favorite part, where George Harrison, waiting to go on stage, wanders into an office for some teen-oriented TV show where they, of course, don't recognize him and mistake him for a member of their focus group. Instead of listening to his opinions, the snarly middle-aged man in charge berates and derides him, insisting he'll soon buy a shirt that he has deemed "grotty" (a word the man in charge nonetheless insists an underling write down so they can drop it into their catalog of jargon to stay hip) because everyone else will be buying them and he'll feel left out. "You'll be passionately right wing!" the man predicts – or, rather, forecasts, since he imagines he's who dictates fashion. The scene's hilarious, with a bitter sting, since it's right on target in so many ways. (Though, to the best of my knowledge, George Harrison never became passionately right wing, unlike many other former teen idols.) Just today I read a flaky "news" story about how the suit-and-tie style of the White House (unlike the crass casual Clinton White House style, which included workers at the White House in their bathrobes on weekends, at least according to the piece) has triggered a resurgence of "good" dressing – in suits and ties, natch – by men all over the country who want to be taken seriously and know suits and ties are the way to accomplish this. What the article doesn't spell out is that sales of suits and ties plummeted in 2002, and this puff piece is the fashion industry's way of trying to drum up business – and invent a trend out of (what else would you expect from the fashion industry?) whole cloth.
There's a duplicity about all this: accepting the group badge of identity is a good thing – and good for the economy! – but not from the wrong group (ie, The Branch Davidians rather than the Southern Baptist Church, black trenchcoat-wearing high school students rather than the football team, the ACLU rather than the Marines, etc.) in the same way drugs are sorted into "good" drugs (caffeine, weight loss pills, tobacco, etc.) which you can buy in half the stores in America, and "bad" drugs (do I really have to list any?), which you can't. I'm not arguing both sides of any such equations are essentially equal, just that the underlying principles of division are suspect; you can make pro and con arguments for individual substances, or groups, on both sides of the good/bad divide, but making those arguments automatically makes you suspect. It's a rigged game. A recent TV ad underscores this: having failed miserably to make a credible case that "illegal drug use = terrorism," whoever's doing those ads – that's how much impact they've had on me – has resorted to having "the voice of reason" insist 'it's true because I say it's true.' The voice of reason is now officially the Voice Of Authority, laying down the law to Junior – who is then shown to accept it due to strength of conviction. If the underlying principle is the true message, the message here is that whoever speaks with the most conviction wins. Reason is no longer necessary. Individual thought is no longer necessary. Implicit in this is another underlying concept: questioning authority = terrorism as well.
All this dualism makes my head hurt. To hell with groups. I never saw what most people seem to loathe so much about being alone. Validate your own damn tastes and beliefs; who cares if anyone else shares them? They're yours.
Then again, I'm just not much of a joiner. I was writing up a series pitch for a company I haven't worked with when I noticed they wanted a paragraph on why I thought I'd be a good member of their team. I have no idea what to say to things like that. I'm a terrible team player: a reason I'm a freelancer. I believe in teams to the extent that my artist(s), letterer, colorist and editor are all trying to work with me to put out a decent project – sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't – but beyond that? Treat me okay, I'll treat you okay, that's about the only compact I'm up for. I've been through various comics companies that wanted everyone to be "on the team" and in my experience it's always a one-way street. When the boss – and there's always a boss – decides someone's got to "take one for the team," it's never him, it's always you. Which is the privilege of being the boss, but it doesn't explain why anyone would want to be on The Team.
I don't get it. I probably never will.
Looking back at 2002, I think it'll eventually be named the year America accepted fascism. Not by that name, of course. Not that I think any of our leaders said, "Let's be fascists now." But... let's look at it.
We have concentration camps now. Not many, true, but they're there. There's the one in Guantánamo with "enemy combatants" stacked knee deep, except we've admitted many of them are just ordinary Afghans with no connection to anything, but we're still keeping them there. We've got special prisons now where American citizens are taken without notice, arraignment, representation or due process, where they're held indefinitely without being allowed to contact anyone and without the government even acknowledging they exist. Not can be. Are. This is not speculation. This is real. We have a president who has assumed the authority to declare any American citizen an enemy of the state and subject them to this. Who claims to be outside the reach of the Judicial Branch. Who, along with his attorney general and security advisors, has actively developed a parallel judicial system expressly to circumvent the public courts.
The attorney general, the highest law enforcement officer in the land, attempted to institute a new force to spy on American citizens with the specific purpose of finding Americans the President can label "enemy combatants." The Pentagon is putting in place a system to track, record and analyze every financial transaction made by every American.
This isn't full-blown fascism, by any stretch, but it's fascist behavior. They haven't applied it to more than a few Americans so far, but there's nothing in their guidelines - to the extent we're sure what those guidelines are, anyway – to prevent the practices from being applied more broadly, since the Administration has also taken the public stance on several occasions that it really doesn't have to answer to the Courts. Sure, you can write this off as me being hyperbolic, the way rioting students in the '60s hyperbolically called police sent to stop them fascists. But I'm looking at a dictionary definition of fascism, and comparing the current situation to historical examples.
Face it: it's by-the-book fascism. It's not widespread, and it hasn't affected many Americans (yet). But it's been planted, and it's a bad seed. So do we root it out, or let it grow? This is the time to do something about it, not later.
Not that recognition of this isn't growing. It's not a Republican or Democrat thing, since some considered arch-Republicans have been very hostile toward such things. (Dick Armey was largely responsible for crippling Ashcroft's TIPS domestic spying proposal, while, bizarrely, former Representative Bob Barr, the one-time heir apparent of Newt Gingrich, has joined the board of the ACLU to help fight for civil liberties.) 15 cities, last I counted, have legislated active defiance toward Administration assaults on the Constitution, not excluding more onerous elements of the Patriot Act. (My own home town of Madison, passed a resolution specifically protecting the Bill Of Rights from the Department Of Justice. Good for you, Madison. I didn't think you had it in you anymore. But I never thought Paul Soglin would be mayor again either). I hope 2003 is the year we stop jumping at our own shadows and learn to be Americans again.
If I seem a little dour, it's because it's been a bad year. A really bad year. Personally, I'm doing fine, and creatively I think I've had more ideas this year than any three years prior. I've made inroads into areas I've wanted to be in. Those are the good parts of 2002.
But the bad has almost been overwhelming. For a couple years now I've been working on alternatives, trying to get alternative means of getting my work out there off the ground. Here's a tip: only work with two kinds of publishers – those who can show you money up front, or those who admit they have no money and lay it all on the line first. You can make educated decisions under those circumstances. I've been giving way too much benefit of the doubt to what have been, essentially (though they'd never characterize themselves that way), con men who've been conning themselves, who claimed to have access to the money needed to make new projects possible, but the money never appeared and the projects collapsed. I've had too many artists take on projects then vanish into the ether, or turn out 3 pages in the time they'd originally said they'd turn out three books, in either case screwing me over and bringing projects that were supposed to follow to a grinding halt, and books that should've been out there making money aren't anywhere near ready yet. Most publishers can't handle a dozen projects in various states of limbo, they need their cash flow too.
Which has turned my own cash flow into a bloody, craterous mess.
Which has left me far less eager these days to work with untested artists (though there remain a few I have considerable faith in). Or with untested publishers, or partners.
Which means I'll be doing whatever I can in 2003 to dig myself out of the hole. I've got lots of established artists who want to work with me. Work-for-hire, creator-owned, doesn't matter to me. It's going to get done. And I'll probably continue preaching here against things I'll be doing in my career, but I don't have the luxury to practice what I preach at the moment, so call me a hypocrite, get it out of your system, and talk to me again in 2004. To quote Machiavelli yet again, in order to exact revenge, one must first win.
Could be worse, though. My only real problem is money. And creeping fascism, of course.
I'm not much for year end wrap-ups. Years tend to bleed into each other enough that it's hard to separate them in hindsight, especially in this era of dominant regurgitated plastic culture, when corporations do their best to ensure not much actually changes from year to year. There was so little new music that even registered this year that I couldn't begin to suggest a best – or even good – album of the year. Going by three simple criteria – I watched regularly, enjoyed most of it and think it's a good show – my top 10 TV show list only numbers seven:
1) THE WIRE (HBO); 2) AMAZING RACE (CBS); 3) CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM; 4) 24 (FOX); 5) TOUCH ENOUGH (MTV); 6) THE OSBOURNES (MTV); 7) OZ (HBO).
It's not a sign of how good the rest of it was, though the top three were quite good, that OZ only squeaked onto the bottom of the list. OZ had a bad enough season that I thought a long time before listing it, but what show that has a Ryan O'Reily wouldn't be on a best-of list, whatever its other sins (including, but not limited to, Luke Perry, who I don't mind as an actor but whose character this last season was way off-kilter for the show)? Sharp eyes will note the absence of flatulent critical darlings like THE SOPRANOS (HBO), SIX FEET UNDER (HBO) (horrible, potential-pissing seasons for both), and WEST WING (NBC) (yawn), and fan favorites like BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (UPN) (never liked it, don't watch it), ENTERPRISE (UPN) (don't even get me started) and SMALLVILLE (WB) (like it, don't usually watch it). There are also shows I regularly watched and enjoyed, like AMERICAN IDOL (Fox) and WWE SMACKDOWN (UPN), that I don't think were particularly good. (And don't write in saying how FIREFLY, ROBBERY HOMICIDE DIVISION etc. weren't given a chance, etc. etc.; there wasn't one show cancelled this season that as far as I can tell didn't deserve its fate, though there are many shows that aren't cancelled that don't deserve their fates.) I keep seeing "worst of" lists, but what's the point of a worst-of list? Just plop down a TV GUIDE and be done with it. (In fact, the best thing even remotely connected to TV to happen in 2002 was the death of TV GUIDE founder, mob scion, right wing political power broker and all around prat Walter Annenberg. Enjoy hell, Walt. You won't be missed. Not that he's the only guy in the country whose family made all their dough from crime and went around acting like that made them aristocracy.)
Due to time constraints, I didn't see enough movies this year to make any lists. What I did see mostly didn't stick with me, except the two most recent, DIE ANOTHER DAY and LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS.
I did read a lot of comics in 2002. I liked a lot of them. While the majors didn't offer a whole lot aside from the odd gem like TRANSMETROPOLITAN, GLOBAL FREQUENCY, and LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMENthere were a lot of interesting independent comics. Creatively, that's where the industry has gone. It'd be nice if someone could figure out how to swing things there financially as well. (Ultimately, it could be Hollywood, which is paying more attention now to independent comics and less to corporate comics, that does it). Online comics still don't do a lot for me, or most online comics sites, but the online comics site of the year was Alex Toth, where, among other things, Toth's essays and entire comics stories can be found.
But there was only one comic I read last year (this gets confusing, since it's still this year while I'm writing this but last year while you're reading it) that really stayed with me and was genuinely charming, a quality rarely associated with comics anymore, and that's enough to qualify it as the Permanent Damage #1 Comic Of 2002:
Rick Smith and Tania Menesse's SHUCK (668 Dexter St, Denver CO 80220; $2.95@).
If you don't know what it is, click the link and find out. If you've been meaning to read it but haven't, go buy it. SHUCK is one of those rare perfect comics that really couldn't exist in any other medium. (Even animation just wouldn't be the same. This is dialogue that has to be read; speaking it aloud would just lose too much.)
Let's clear out the last of 2002's reviews:
I've been hearing about Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith's 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (Idea+Design Works, 2645 Financial Ct Suite E, San Diego CA 92117; $3.99@) for months now, and I wish I'd read more than the final issue, because it seems to be everything it was made out to be. It's a blindingly simple idea - vampires in Barrow Alaska in the dead of winter when the sun doesn't rise there – played out with drama and intensity. The final battle seemed a smidge rushed and could've used a couple more pages, but I'm glad there was no NEAR DARK miracle ending (and, for my money, NEAR DARK is the only great vampire movie ever made). A strong work.
Future Comics' METALLIX #1 (220 Brandon Blvd Suite 104, Brandon FL 33511; $3.50) is at least conceptually an interesting spin on Iron Man: a semi-living suit of apparently liquid metal that can be transferred almost instantaneously between members of a strike team, making whoever wears it superstrong and functionally invulnerable. The execution's helped considerably by Ron Lim's pencils, which make a pleasing combo with Bob Layton's inks. I'm still not entirely sold on the consciously retro mode of Future's books, but in 2002 a sense of familiarity has yet to turn out to be a market detriment, so it's a little early to second-guess their wisdom. FREEMIND #2 ($3.50), pleasantly drawn by Bob McLeod and Dick Giordano, falls into the same category, but is a considerable improvement over the #0 I saw a few months ago: a wheelchair bound Stephen Hawking type develops the means to transfer his mind into robot. One flaw: presumably I'm reading the character's origin story, but guys! You've got to start giving us a little more information. Anyway, while they don't blow me away these books aren't bad for what they are. Question is: in 2003, will "not bad" from a start-up be good enough?
The first issue of B.A.B.E. FORCE (Comics Conspiracy, 115-A E Fremont Ave, Sunnyvale CA 94087; $2.95), about bumbling bimbette spies thwarting the world-conquering schemes of a power-mad secret organization, left me wondering whether the book was intended to be a bad parody or whether the creators just weren't bright enough to know any better. #3 answers that: definitely a parody. And it's better now; I even laughed a couple of times. And the art has stabilized to a decent second-generation DANGER GIRL consistency. Still leaves me cold, though. Maybe by #5...
MAGE KNIGHT #2 (Idea+Design Works, 2645 Financial Ct Suite E, San Diego CA 92117; $3.50), based on some sort of game, also leaves me cold. Trolls, axes, swords, sorcerers, elves, giants, magic rocks, centaurs; like I said, familiarity is apparently no vice in 2002. It's decently done enough, with appropriate, fairly accomplished art and coloring by David Cabrera and Oscar Escamilla, though Todd Dezago's writing does something a lot of writers do now that irritates the hell out of me, alternating dialogue between slangy modern mode and high-blown antiquated voice. Which really does nothing more than reminds you just what artifice you're reading. Again, it's not bad for what it is. I just wish it were something else. (All these fantasy things feel like they also wish they were something else, like THE LORD OF THE RINGS.)
Marvel tried with mixed success to get the idea of "monster heroes" off the ground in the '70s (the only one that really caught fire was TOMB OF DRACULA), and Benkyo Tamaoki's BLOOD THE LAST VAMPIRE 2002 (Viz Communications, Box 77010, San Francisco CA 94107; $15.95). comes off as a better realization of that concept. Identical twin girls, one a vampire and the other a superhuman vampire hunter, fight it out for the future of the vampire race, with a young girl caught between them. It's stylishly done, with heaping helpings of sex and slaughter, but ultimately it lacks any real depth. One kicker of an ending, though. And what is it with the Japanese and schoolgirl uniforms, anyway?
Finally, there's the third volume of Junji Ito's indescribable horror epic UZUMAKI (Viz Communications, Box 77010, San Francisco CA 94107; $16.95). All I can really say about it is a) I can't recall a single tale in any medium that so evocatively and sympathetically invokes the concept of humanity adrift in an incomprehensibly hostile universe, and b) if you're not reading it, you should be. It might be the finest horror comic ever done.
Thanks for the rave, Mark.
If you feel like helping to jumpstart my cash flow, head on over to either Khepri or Mars Import. (Or your local comics shop, of course) for a fabulous selection of books to choose from. And don't forget to tell them I sent you.
In any case, go have a Happy New Year. In the immortal words of Neil Young, don't let 'em bring you down. It's only castles burning...
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.