Issue #71

A couple of weeks ago, I found the new local library had a whole "graphic novels" shelf (it's mostly trade paperback collections, but why quibble?) so I've been catching up on a lot of material I've missed or ignored, particularly from the Big 2. After a long list of novels, I hit a patch where comic books were the only things I felt like reading, so the discovery was just in time.

In the meantime, Pulse announced that Art Spiegelman and others have arranged for "graphic novel" to now be an official bookstore category. (Yes, there are groups that oversee this sort of thing. Go read the article: "BOOKSTORE REVOLUTION: Graphic novels get their own category.") (And, Heidi, is there any way you can set pages to have direct links, rather than the current system of having the main page be the only possible link?) Which means publishers are now likely to pump out even more trade paperback collections of old material, and bookstores are more likely to expose that material to new readers. While no joke is an old joke to someone who hasn't heard it, my recent reading has revealed a worm in the apple that publishers ought to be very wary of, something that could potentially bring the "bookstore revolution" crashing down on all our heads.

Among the books I checked out from the library was a MARVEL ESSENTIALS collection of THE HULK VOL. 2, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Marie Severin and Herb Trimpe and various others. The stories ran in the last issues of TALES TO ASTONISH and the earliest issues of the Hulk's second solo run. I read them when they came out and remember enjoying most of them, though not as much as I remember enjoying other Marvel books at the time. Reading them now, collected, I really wonder how on earth the Hulk ever became popular.

I'm not knocking Stan, I'm not claiming I'm a better writer than he is. THE INCREDIBLE HULK is a product of its time and the conditions of its creation. But it's so damn repetitive. The army fears him, so they attack him, so to show he's the strongest there is, he destroys stuff. "Why do they fear Hulk?" he complains. Hulk fights another hero due to a misunderstanding. He takes off the another planet where they don't know him, and beats down the occupants. "Why do they fear Hulk?" he complains. He returns to Earth. A villain dupes him. He fights the army. A villain mind-controls him. To get away from violence, he travels to Asgard – where he picks a fight with the first beings he sees. He returns to Earth. He fights the army. "Why do they fear Hulk?" he complains. Someone threatens Betty Brant. Hulk must save Betty. "Why has Betty betrayed Hulk?" A villain mind-controls him. He goes to a strange land. A villain dupes him. "Hulk could never live here in peace." Hulk goes to a strange land. He fights another hero due to a misunderstanding. Hulk goes into space, and starts throwing buildings around. "Why do they fear Hulk?" he complains. Hulk returns to Earth. A villain dupes him. But Hulk will not hurt Betty. "Why has Betty betrayed Hulk?" A villain dupes the army. Hulk is strongest there is.

Admittedly, this is an unfair characterization of the series, but it points up that it was never meant to be read in a collected edition. If it worked at all, it worked as a serial concoction, a bi-product of the notion that comics were throwaway items to be only vaguely remembered before the next issue came out. It must've worked because the Hulk became one of the most beloved characters in comics (not to mention TV, and, Marvel's betting, the movies) but when you read these stories in compression, you realize the Hulk isn't so much a poor misunderstood monster as a flaming idiot. He doesn't want to be hated and feared so he consistently does the one thing that keeps him hated and feared: smashes everything in his path and proving over and over that he's the strongest one there is. Is it possible no one really had any empathy for the Hulk, and what they really wanted to see was someone who goes on rampages of destruction?

But that's beside the point. The real message here is: serialized comics don't automatically read well as trade paperback collections. Because of the nature of the character and the stories THE INCREDIBLE HULK is an extreme example, but it will only take so many collections triggering so many similar responses before we kill the trade paperback/graphic novel market. What's most disturbing about THE INCREDIBLE HULK is how irrelevant and perfunctory the dialogue is. (And Stan's reputation was first made because his dialogue had more style and characterization than much of what surrounded it in comics.) Much of it is strictly expository, and what passes for characterization is the reiteration of the same dialogue, in slight variation, over and over and over again. "YOU – made him think – I turned AGAINST him!" "How can I win her heart – when I must DESTROY the man she LOVES?" "WHY did my own DAUGHTER – have to fall in LOVE – with a man like – BANNER??" Like I said, this stuff wasn't intended to be read compactly. Like most serial comics, particularly superhero stories, there is no real resolution or character arc. Things are never really meant to change. You can get away with that (at least for awhile) in serialization. "Novels" – and we're marketing trade paperback collections as "graphic novels," aren't we? – need those things.

Now here's the really scary part. I also read a number of other superhero comic trade paperback collections, all done within the last five years – and the dialogue is virtually as perfunctory and irrelevant there! And these are comics (some done by friends of mine) that have been widely touted in fandom as great superhero comics. They're not bad, on an action-adventure level. They get the job done. But the dialogue is mostly on the "Quick! A shield!" level, with the odd lipbiting Stan Lee-isms tossed in. It's not bad, particularly, but you can pretty much read the comics without really reading the dialogue at all, and not miss much. So what's the dialogue really doing there? Besides leading the reader step by step through the story.

I'm not saying this is the nature of superhero comics. There's absolutely no reason it has to be, though traditional superhero comics are saddled with an interchangeability of characters (heroes must be noble, trustworthy, politically correct however you define that term, plus a variety of other character traits) that pretty much render characterization – and dialogue – superfluous. Let's face it, we don't really need Thor to tell us he's throwing his hammer. We can see that in the art. (If the storytelling's decent, anyway.) The problem extends way beyond superhero comics anyway. Part of the problem is the uneasy relationship words and pictures continue to have in comics. (Warren Ellis suggested, on another forum, a manifesto that approaches such things from a Gallic and Japanese perspective.) By and large, the weight of comics has been carried by the art – the writing often seems like an afterthought – and what we need is more comics and graphic novels where the writing carries just as much weight, and isn't necessarily in bondage only to the basic needs of the story. The graphic novel – even the trade paperback, as the focus of many recent serial comics has been combination into trade paperback – demands a total reworking of our approach toward writing comics. What has passed for comics writing for most of the existence of serial comics is simply not fit for the different format and it's time we acknowledged that and worked, as individuals and as an industry, to do something about it, since the standards of serial comics writing makes the material look idiotic in collections. It's time comics writers started thinking about this all the time. Failure to fill that demand is suicide, because if we kill off the graphic novel/trade paperback/bookstore market, that's pretty much the end of it all.

If nothing else, the myth of a "liberal press" got shot to hell over the weekend, as the press did a pathetic job of covering the anti-war rallies in Washington DC and numerous other American cities. There were about half again as many protesters (roughly 150,000) were in Washington as there (currently) are American troops destined for the Persian Gulf (60,000, with 30,000 more on the way), so the press couldn't quite ignore it the way they've ignored most other recently American anti-war activity, so they did their best to downplay it. I was first aware of this on Saturday, when I was driving and a news feed hit the car radio. It began by talking about "the largest anti-war rally in the nation's capital since the Vietnam War" – but the only person interviewed for the report was among the "others who came to Washington to express support for the President." Not a word of rationale or explanation from anyone who doesn't see a lot of point in a "pre-emptive strike" on Iraq. That was left for the Sunday pundits, who tarred the protesters as "socialists" and "hippies. Cooperating in this were the DC police, headed by a veteran of the bloody 1968 Chicago demonstrations, who has, in the wake of NAFTA and WTO protests among others, considerably fine-tuned his crowd-control skills. The demonstrators didn't want, nor did the police expect, any violence, and aside from a handful of arrests that was pretty much the course. The police fenced off areas around the Washington Monument, the rally's focus, forcing attendees into other areas and away from camera crews and reporters who could then cite the "tens of thousands" (a considerably less impressive count than "well over 100,000").

Thing is, this isn't even the first time there's been an anti-war rally in Washington, nor the first time the numbers have gotten that large. Last October's rally may have been even bigger. Then, as now (and with other marches and demonstrations such as the fabled Million Man March of a few years ago), the police released crowd estimates far short of actual numbers, and the press dutifully printed them.

For whatever reasons, the press, like the administration, have been determined to show the American public is overwhelmingly in favor of military action against Iraq. (By the way, Slate recently ran an article about Washington's tenuous relationship to the Kurdish opposition in Iraq that reinforces the widening perception that our interest in the country has much less to do with freedom than with oil.) The weekend protests, spread out across the country (the bulk of the Washington protesters came from the East Coast), may not prove pro-war support isn't overwhelming, but they certainly suggest there are widely held points of view that have not adequately entered into public discourse. (One of the rally speakers, British MP Jeremy Corbyn, claimed Britons overwhelmingly – a recent poll indicates 83% – oppose war on Iraq as well, a suggestion also not usually put forth by the American press... nor British Prime Minister Tony Blair.)

Of course, it's been an interesting week in politics anyway. First, you've got the Hand Puppet initiating war on opportunity for African-Americans in the name of social equality, with the first lob against the University of Michigan. And he's touting this like it honors the memory of Martin Luther King. (It's Martin Luther King's birthday as I write this, and pretty much all that's being said about him now – what remains of his legacy – is that he led some marches, gave a speech, and got shot to death. Which is like saying Abraham Lincoln won an election, was president during a war, and got shot to death.)

Then you've got the "startling findings" of the UN in Iraq. I have this fantasy that this whole thing may actually be clever brinksmanship, with the White House threatening war to drive the UN into action and force Saddam Hussein into humiliation and resignation, and Iraq "seeding" troubling but ultimately innocuous findings – in this case, empty warheads, lacking payload or (as far as I know; the reports I've seen have been spotty on the details) delivery system – which, if actually intentional, will almost certainly lead inspectors to declare in their forthcoming report, that they need more time. When you think about it, the Iraqis may only be playing out the logic of the situation; if inspectors find nothing, the US will simply claim everything's hidden and swoop in, but if they find something, it becomes grounds for further inspections to make sure there's nothing else. It's the "tiny little time pills" approach to international negotiation. I continue to hope this is all clever brinksmanship, and not just arrogant stupidity, though my gut goes with the latter.

For those who continue to be puzzled by the North Korea situation, Alexander Cockburn has conveniently timelined events leading up to the current thermonuclear showdown. The short version is this: the Republicans cocked it up big time. Here's the situation with North Korea: most of the population is starving, the country has few resources of its own, and it needs economic aid and energy. Believe it or don't, Clinton actually dealt with this pretty successfully, only to be shot down by a Republican Congress who yanked away the deal, refusing to "appease" a mad dog Communist. Now remember it wasn't all that long ago – easily within the living memory of many North Koreans – when MacArthur sought permission to nuke the country into oblivion (with, as Cockburn quotes, "between thirty and fifty [post-Hiroshima level] atomic bombs"). Cut to 2002. The Hand Puppet has a speech declaring Iraq and Iran an axis of terror, I believe it originally was. Feeling that might be construed as specifically anti-Moslem, White House advisors prompted the addition of North Korea to the list, to stifle any criticisms along religious lines. (After all, North Korea's a politically disenfranchised pissant wad of dirt, so who cares what they think, right?) What specifically connects North Korea to the other two (or Iran to Iraq, for that matter)? Speechwriters. Suddenly the Hand Puppet's calling for the invasion of Iraq, and if that's successful, logic suggests Iran and North Korea are on the same hit list. (After all, he put 'em there.) Along the way, the President also says a) the USA reserves the right of first strike with nuclear weapons, and b) we will not hesitate to use these options if we feel it's necessary. It's worth remembering that North Korea didn't start the game of nuclear chess; we did. So let's add this up: you've got a country that basically has no bargaining chips except nuclear power, you pull out any hope they might have of getting your help to improve their lot even when it's of major benefit to you, you list them among the worst enemies of humanity, threaten them with thermonuclear annihilation, and then claim any negotiation is appeasement and that's totally unacceptable –

Not hard to miss the results these days, is it? It's pretty obvious we're going to try to negotiate our way out of this one, though we could've dodged it entirely if in 1994 Congress had signed onto the Clinton deal. We've just got to stop insisting other countries totally acquiesce to our demands before we enter negotiations, though. We can't really expect other countries to not engage in arrogant stupidity if we won't drop it as a main tool of international relations ourselves.

Was talking with someone about Democratic candidates and the 2004 election the other day, and stumbled across a curious trend I don't remember anyone else mentioning:

Maybe it has to do with the distrust of the Federal government that has always bubbled under the surface of American culture, and has been an overt feature since Nixon's little crime spree and subsequent resignation, but, since 1976, with one exception, governors beat Washington insiders in Presidential races. But when Washington Insiders run against a sitting president, they lose. Check it out.

1976: President Gerald Ford vs. Georgia governor Jimmy Carter. Carter wins.

1980: President Jimmy Carter vs. California ex-governor Ronald Reagan. Reagan wins.

1984: President Ronald Reagan vs. Minnesota senator Walter Mondale. Mondale loses.

1988: Vice-president George H. Bush vs. Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis. Bush wins.

1992: President George H. Bush vs. Arkansas governor Bill Clinton. Clinton wins.

1996: President Bill Clinton vs. Kansas senator Bob Dole. Clinton wins.

2000: Vice-president Al Gore vs. Texas governor George W. Bush. Bush wins.

What does it mean? Maybe governors tend to generate a different image than, say, senators (and certainly vice-presidents, who tend to generate no image at all). Senators negotiate, filibuster and sometimes capitulate. Governors govern. It might be a perception a governor already has executive experience. It might play to another, unnerving undercurrent that periodically surges in American political life: the love of the strongman. It might have to do with governors usually having more, and more consistent, contact with the media and subsequently having a better sense of how to manipulate it. It might be a continuing desire of an increasingly distressed and disenfranchised electorate to shake things up in Washington and get government working for "the people" again instead of one host of special interests or another (which instead usually results in a different kind of "gridlock," as the incoming outsider President has to learn how to maneuver the Beltway until he's basically an insider himself, playing at the same game as everyone else while special interests become ever more entrenched).

Or it could be nothing more than a curious statistic. If you're of a particularly conspiratorial bent, it could just be another example of how "they" ensure, for their own ends, that the system doesn't work.

Whatever. But I think there's a specific message Democrats (or third parties) should take to heart:

In 2004, run a governor. Preferably one who comes across better than Dukakis. Jesse Ventura for President, anyone?

OZ (HBO, 9PM Sunday) this past week took a jolting turn back to the random unpredictability of its initial two seasons. For those who haven't seen it, I won't go into it except to say that if they explain it next week it's a brilliant move and if they don't it's an indicator of how far a once-great series has sunk. But the episode was filled with the unexpected, from the humiliation of Vern Schillinger to Tobias Beecher actually becoming a free man instead of the usual OZ irony of being cut down on his way out the door. On the other hand, prisoners who leave Oswald have a tendency to return, and there are five episodes left, with lots of plotlines to wrap up. With the longstanding power structures suddenly collapsing – among the staff, the prisoners and even the politicians who always hold the prison's fate in their capricious hands – it feels like catastrophe coming on every front, and with creator Tom Fontana apparently refocused on the series, I expect it'll go out with a big bang, especially with all the fuses the third episode lit.

One reality show passes, another returns. Sort of. TOUGH ENOUGH (MTV, 10PM Thursday) ends its third (and possibly last) season tomorrow, with an hour long episode giving two of the contestants WWE development contracts. My guess is Matt and John, but a wrestling website makes a pretty good argument for Matt and Jonah, following a broadcast with the contestants and trainers on WWE Internet (summarized in the article). In theory, the contestants don't even know, and the wild card is the 800-number poll they took over the last week to see which of the 5 remaining contestants the audience will cut. More than the groups on the first two seasons, this group strongly bonded, and I could ultimately see any two of them being of value to the WWE. TOUGH ENOUGH hasn't been great TV, but it's been really good TV, and one of the better "reality" shows. AMERICAN IDOL came back on Tuesday (though the airing is still 11 hours off, for me) with 1.5 hour cattle call, the "Candid Camera" episode that lets us laugh at the hubris of the common man. There's something unsavory about that, but, lord help me, I'm going to watch. I don't know about the rest of the series, though. Didn't they "create" a "superstar" or two last season, only to shove them into the public eye for two weeks then let them vanish like stones in a lake? Are the snideness of judge Simon Cowell and the catfights between the judges enough to get me through endless Coca-Cola and Ford Focus vignettes? Can they recreate the phenomenal success of the series last summer (when, remember, there was nothing else on to watch)? Right now, it's only here to tide me over until 24 comes back.

Speaking of laughing at the torments of others, I've never watched more than 15 minutes of SURVIVOR (CBS) and I hate the show with a passion, but I may be driven to watch the upcoming season. (When does it start? February?) It's the locale: The Amazon. A couple years back, BBC America aired an edition of its CASTAWAYS series – similar to SURVIVOR except it's a documentary, not a game show, and the point is not for "contestants" to compete for prize money but to bond into a unit that can achieve a specific survival goal – also set in The Amazon, and the goal was to get from one end of a river to another. They succeeded, barely, but it was one horrifying disaster after another, complete with monstrous hungry bugs, poisonous snakes, mudslides, etc. The Amazon struck me as about the worst place in the world to get stuck, but, like AMERICAN IDOL, it has a car wreck hold on me I find it hard to look away from, even though I know better. The cold, hard fact is that I want to see how well the SURVIVORs will survive in the Amazon, so glad it's them and not me.

It occurs to me, reading the latest titles from Future Comics (220 Brandon Blvd #104, Brandon FL 33511), that Bob Layton had far more influence on the editorial content of Valiant Comics than anyone ever guessed. I'm not saying this to downplay Jim Shooter, who was, as far as the public was concerned, the heart and soul of Valiant (at least until he was unceremoniously ejected from the company) but it's striking just how much FREEMIND #3 ($3.50) and METALLIX #2 ($3.50) read like Valiant Comics, while offerings from Shooter's later companies, Defiant and Broadway, didn't. Both books – the first about a cripple who can project his mind into a superpowered android body and the second about a strikeforce that shares a superpowered liquid metal uniform and trades it around as individual skills come into play – are pleasantly readable, and drawn in straightforward traditionalist style championed by Valiant back in the day. The marketing idea behind Future is to do "fun" comics again, and they're not far off, but while the premises are interesting the development's a little shaky. The problem with these issues – and a problem with many superhero concepts, at many companies – is their insularity; they aren't about anything but themselves. The plots of FREEMIND and METALLIX, apparently their uberplots, are distressingly similar, with the action generating out of the bad guys (rich guys with their technopowered flunkies) attacking the good guys (organizations with considerable wealth and technology at their disposal) to steal their secrets. These two issues are still fairly enjoyable (there's an oddly anachronistic tone to some of the dialogue that's jarring, including words like "buttinski" that stand out like a sore thumb mainly because no one has used them in 50 years) but Future's going to have to shake off the redundancies right quick if they plan to stick around. In the immortal words of Fred Buerke, fun's fun but a girl can't dance all night.

DIGITAL WEBBING PRESENTS (31 Westford St, Haverhill MA 01832; $2.95) is back for another round, this time with their first anniversary issue (#6). As usual, this is largely a showground for budding comics talent, and, in that regard, it's fairly instructional. The cover and lead story feature Ian Ascher, Deon Nuckols and James Taylor's DIGITAL WIDOW, a humanoid femmebot out to destroy her mechanical creator and all his works. Aside from looking a bit rushed toward the end, the Nuckols-Taylor art is pretty close to professional quality, and decent storytelling, and I suspect it won't be long before they're working for major companies, if that's what they want. The writing, however, drives me nuts. Not that Ascher doesn't string words together fine, but – the heroine states "There is nothing in this station of which I am unaware" (which itself was good English 100 years ago but now sounds artificial and strained, which might have been his goal) then two pages later she's startled by what she finds. That sort of thing. This goes back to what I was saying – and Ascher's hardly the worst offender, he's just the poor doe who wandered into traffic – about dialogue being more than words on a page. Meanwhile, Joe Morris, Hannu Lipponen and Ron Riley's comical Valley girl-type superheroines, AMBER AND ALLEY, return – and basically nothing happens except they decide to move to the city where versions of all the Marvel and DC heroes live. Cute idea that could've been done in half the space, and it would've been cuter if it hadn't been done, oh, a thousand times before. Matt Starnes returns sideways to the "Team" concept he developed in DWP with Diego Jourdan in a light short about a boy's inability to free an action figure from its packaging, until unexpected help arrives. Again, it's cute, but while the set-up's quite good the payoff packs all the punch of a BAZOOKA JOE bubblegum comic. Jeffrey Stevenson and Scott Story provide the adventures of swordswomen ARAZEL & XARENIA, a tongue-in-cheek jab at DUNGEONS & DRAGONS conventions that's far better than it has any right to be. Probably the crown jewel of the issue is Michael Moorcock and Vatche Mavlian's THE MASKED BUCKAROO in "Return Of The White Wolf." Of course, Moorcock's an accomplished novelist whose famous Elric character is about to be published by, what, its 12000th comics publisher, DC, later this year. This is an entertaining Lone Ranger pastiche with Elric overtones and really good art that's sort of a cross between Jax Jaxon and early Berni Wrightson. It's fluff, sure, but it's great fluff, and it's great to see material here that's not strictly superhero or sci-fantasy. Funny too. CG Kirby and Kelly Goodine produce another good alt-genre story, SHARPSHOOTER, about a soldier with an unwanted talent for killing. It's an interesting idea only upset by an ending that doesn't quite work, though it's obviously the ending the whole thing was set up for. Wrapping up the issue are Dan Berger's GUTWALLOW, a fantasy adventure that would've come off a lot better if it hadn't been following ARAZEL & XARENIA - though not badly done, it comes off as redundant (watch that editing, Ed) – and a one-page Christmas goof by EV Jameson and Dave Crosland. All of which leaves me with my usual praise and complaints for DIGITAL WEBBING PRESENTS: as usual, the stories in it are mostly just shy of professional, and interesting from a developmental standpoint, but they're also just shy of original – way too much of the stuff smacks of déjà vu – and that's something everyone involved out to work hard on.

Then there's Sam Costello, Shawn Decker and Steve Collins' mini-comic TENT CITY TALES ($2.00). These are more vignettes than stories, of people down on their luck to one degree or another, but it's neither mawkish nor sensationalistic, as such things tend to be. They're simply people in bad places, or who make bad choices, and the pieces have wit, irony (particularly in the closing shot), sympathy and humanity, and while the art's not great, it effectively gets all those aspects across. Which is more than I can say for most comics. It's good.

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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