Issue #72

Strange week: a big week for comics without comics, certainly American comics, ever really entering into it. Angouleme, Sundance, The Superbowl. I don't watch the Superbowl, or football ­ the only reason the Raiders are my favorite team is they've got the coolest uniforms, but they weren't even wearing those when they folded like a cheap accordion on Sunday (Tampa Bay... jeez... now Crossgen's really going to be insufferable...) ­ but it has become tradition for companies to trot out hot new commercials and, since it's the only time of year I actually watch commercials non-accidentally, I tape the show for that. Not worth it this year. Aside from an Osbourne family Pepsi Twist ad that would've been really funny had they not pimped it for the last two weeks and given away all the, um, twists (I'd swear the people who write the issue blurbs for PREVIEWS did the spot's advance p.r.), there wasn't much to write home about. A lot of crude beer commercials, way too much Michael Jordan (a spot where a young Michael Jordan dunks ball with an older Michael Jordan was completely lost on me, since I don't follow basketball either) and lots of Jennifer Garner undressed to trick football fans into think ALIAS (ABC, Sunday 9PM) is one of those cheesy soft-core flicks they show on HBO's off-channels in the middle of the night.

And movie ads, where comics came in strong.

There was Arnold, back for TERMINATOR 3 in a bland edited down version of the trailer they're already showing in theaters. (It's not like it's not going to do through the roof anyway.)

There was THE HULK, which may be problematic. The initial shot, where eyes open as skin goes green, was way cool, and it is Ang CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON Lee directing, but that CGI Hulk just looks goofy, like Shrek walked into the wrong movie.

But there was also DAREDEVIL, in a new commercial (if it's not new, it never played any theater I've been in) that seemed to reverse the logic of other trailers. They've been hiding the DD costume up until now, moving it through trailers so quickly you couldn't focus on it, but they finally gave us a look at it. And it only looks half as bad as I expected, like someone's been airbrushing the hell out of the piping on it. Smartly, the ad focused on the Matt Murdock-Elektra relationship, which might make it the Valentine's Day date movie. So I have to give this one chops; exposing the costume is a calculated risk ­ maybe it's better to have people see what it is before they get there so it doesn't hit them as a laughable surprise ­ but overall I think the spot made the film more generally salable, a romantic action film like SPIDER-MAN, and that was smart. This might not be the death of the superhero film that everyone's been predicting after all.

But the hottest film spot of the night had to go to the MATRIX spot, which really burned through the superhero and wire fu tropes while also pimping the romantic element hard, courtesy of Carrie-Anne Moss, who got a lot of screen time out of it. Really getting the blood pumping, it made TERMINATOR 3 and THE HULK look ponderous by comparison, and left DAREDEVIL in the dust.

Meanwhile, over at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, where Hollywood finally successfully colonized independent filmmaking, AMERICAN SPLENDOR, based on Harvey Pekar's sporadic long-running comic, won top honors (though, on one of the festival updates, its co-director Sherry Springer Berman pissed the hell out of me by blathering on about how AMERICAN SPLENDOR isn't really a comic book because it's not about superheroes, as if there aren't thousands of small run comics about people poring over the minutiae of their lives, and as if she was trying to run as far and as fast from the taint of "comic books" as possible). At the box office, DARKNESS FALLS, written by former Marvel writer Joe Harris, topped the charts.

In France, the annual European equivalent to Comic-Con International, Angouleme, had well over 100,000 in attendance, got coverage on American radio, and its usual special focus on non-American comics (though Chris Ware's JIMMY CORRIGAN took top honors there). The convention strongly underscores the mushrooming popularity of comics worldwide, at a point in American comics where it's considered reason to break out the champagne because sales haven't dropped as much as expected.

Finally, legendary cartoonists Al Hirshfeld and Bill Mauldin died, with the popular caricaturist Hirshfeld widely feted and Mauldin, whose cartoons were once considered the heart and soul of WWII, for some reason barely mentioned.

I haven't got any pithy observation to neatly tie all this together. I'm just overwhelmed by the saturation of comics into our culture this week with comics almost never being mentioned at all. Draw your own conclusions.

Maybe the most interesting comics-related story of the week was the decision by shaky giant AOL-Time-Warner, which recently underwent a screwy (not because Steve Case removed himself, since there was plenty of writing on the wall there, but because he was replaced, against all expectations ­ and, to some, logic ­ by ATW CEO Richard Parsons, who'll now wear Case's Chairman Of The Board hat as well) change of management, to try to alleviate the whomping $26 billion the company racked up under Case by... selling off their profitable book publishing wing (which includes Warner Books and Little, Brown & Co. Yes, it's true: despite all their emphasis on becoming the masters of future communications ­ TV, the Internet, satellite, cable, movies etc. ­ one of the few profitable areas of the world's biggest media conglomerate and one of the biggest conglomerates period, is Guttenberg-era book publishing. I know if I were 26 billion in debt, the first thing I'd do is get rid of what I own that actually makes money.

This doesn't really affect ATW stepchild DC Comics, since DC is part of the film company, not the publishing wing. (The logic of that seems to revolve around DC's role as a license-generation machine, something the media wing is supposedly better able to exploit, which explains all the SUPERMAN and BATMAN movies they've been pumping out the last couple of years.) So they're still safely in the ATW nest, where AOL's losses alone (some $9 billion) make any quiet time for DC profits (though I'm told DC rarely actually loses money) look like chump change. The big if for DC is what will happen to their bookstore trade paperback business, currently distributed by Warner Books and a solid #3 in that market behind Tokyo Pop and Viz Communications. If Warner Books, which seems to have never much cared for dealing with DC in the first place (despite huge profit items like THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and THE WATCHMEN back in the days when all DC's book publishing had to go through Warner instead of their own imprints), discards DC as a client when (if!) they change ownership, at minimum it'll cause a hiccup in what's probably DC's most profitable branch. Certainly DC will easily be able to distribute through Diamond, but they'll be just one of dozens of publishers generating graphic novels there (though their favorite son status will doubtless come into play) and the jury's still out on the dimensions of Diamond's reach into bookstores. The real question of this whole thing isn't how much the loss of a Warner Books connection might hurt DC ­ I'm sure they'll survive just fine ­ but how much a continued connection to a supergiant collapsing under the weight of crushing debt will hurt them in the long run. In the early '80s, the rumor was constantly heard that Marvel was buying DC (it was, in fact, a threat often dangled in front of freelancers contemplating working for the latter as well as the former, with the implication that when Marvel bought DC those freelancers would be shut out), and while Marvel still has plenty of its own money worries, as AOL continues to pile up massive debt and ATW sells off more and more parts of the company to deal with it, it's not too far-fetched that we may soon hear the rumor again.

The Hand Puppet's State Of The Union Address isn't up for nine hours, so I've got no idea whether we're at war with Iraq this morning or not. His minions have been out full force for the last week reiterating the equation over and over that "War on Terrorism = War on Iraq" (I thought it equaled "War on Drugs," or was that last year? Maybe we should just factor out all the dissonant elements and simply it to "War = War = War," which I'm sure everyone can agree on) without actually offering up any proof except their word that they've got it. Well, tonight (my real time, not yours) we'll see if he actually trots it out. No less than Gen. Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf, the hero of Kuwait, recently said in The Washington Post: "The thought of Saddam Hussein with a sophisticated nuclear capability is a frightening thought, okay? Now, having said that, I don't know what intelligence the U.S. government has. And before I can just stand up and say, 'Beyond a shadow of a doubt, we need to invade Iraq,' I guess I would like to have better information." Considering a number of pundits have been echoing a rationale I've been hearing burbling out of Washington for weeks now ­ stated with nice concision by ultra-rightist commentator Robert Novak on CNN's THE CAPITAL GANG (Saturday 8PM Pacific): "They want a war as a manifestation of U.S. power in the world and as a sign that the United States is capable of changing the balance of power and the political map of the Middle East... [The handful of empty shells are] ...being used as a pretext for a decision that's already been made at high levels of the U.S. government to change the government in Iraq. It has nothing to do with, boy, we're -- we are really worried about these little chemical warheads that's going to cause a holocaust in the Middle East." ­ and taking into account the considerable documentation outlining a high-level push toward An American Empire that well predates the 9-11 attacks, taking our president at his word may not be the wisest course of action. But White House press secretary has indicated the administration feels to best way to deal with drastically declining public support for a war on Iraq is to start one, so I wouldn't be surprised if the Hand Puppet uses the State Of The Union Address to start one, and damn the torpedoes.

I still can't believe the president pissed away the incredible Q-rating the USA had on the world stage following 9-11. Virtually the entire world was backing us. A visionary could've used that sentiment to pursue some real international progress. Instead, if reports from abroad are any more believable than our president, even our allies are witnessing the highest peak of anti-American sentiment in living history. Don't tell me Lex Luthor doesn't make a better president...

I do have to give Marvel high grades for their forthcoming 411 project, a sort of follow-up to their 9-11 related book that has various peace activists discussing the rationale and programs promoting peace in the world today, and peaceful solutions to international conflicts, in a time of so much self-righteous saber-rattling. (And I'm not just talking about the United States.) I've heard some complaints that this is another Marvel ploy to get mentioned on CNN, but even if it is, so what? Sometimes it's the message, not the motive. Good for Marvel.

Whatever fun there was in the first AMERICAN IDOL (Fox, Tuesday 8PM) is officially gone. With tens of thousands of would-bes of varying talent trotting before them in several American cities, judges Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and the ubiquitous Simon Cowell (is there a talk show on Earth that hasn't booked him as a guest?) seemed bored to tears, even when clearing contestants through to the next round. Last year it seemed to me at least some of the worst offenders among the Big Ego anti-talent contestants who argued their way through roasting were shills sent in by Fox to make sure they could fill almost five hours of TV (a suspicion unofficially bolstered by an L.A. friend who told me agents had told him Fox was paying people to go to auditions and sing/behave badly ­ at which point Fox's lawyers will probably start shouting "Objection! Hearsay, your honor!"). This year it felt like most of them were. There were a couple sob stories that smacked of authenticity: a pimp-suited kid of Kansas City who'd traveled down to Austin seemed genuinely shattered and shrunken by rejection, having no money to return home with, a moment that uncharacteristically played up the potential human cost of this little game show. (But how'd he figure on getting back anyway? It's not like when they say "You're going to Hollywood!" you go right to Hollywood.) But too many contestants seemed too much to not know what they were getting into, as if they'd never seen the show before. Whatever passed for chemistry between the judges was gone as well. Simon, despite interviews saying he would no longer restrain himself and would say whatever entered his mind this season, was subdued and polite while Randy Randy Randy seemed determined to outbrutal Simon and catch some ink for himself. He often roared in after Simon had simply told contestants "You're not good enough, sorry" with enhanced invective and cruelty, seeing how far he could go to humiliate contestants in the same ways that last season he insisted to Simon you couldn't do because this is America, and we don't do that here. (Apparently Randy never lived through a presidential campaign.) Even traditionally wimpy Paula finally got into the act, after hours of entertainingly squirming to find nice ways to let really piss-poor contestants down with a shred of dignity intact. As for the contestants, unlike last season, not one who passed through stuck in my mind because their singing made me think "Wow, they're not bad!" The memorable singers were gimmicks ­ a Marine saluting Simon and singing patriotic songs, some kid in a mob suit doing a decent Frank Sinatra impression, a girl singing Patsy Cline's version of "Crazy" in a way that makes you wonder if she can possibly sing anything else - or chippies singled out because their looks signaled a return to the girl next door, which apparently Simon and Randy have decided is the next big trend now that Christina Aguilera (and about a million others; why'd they single her out?) has cornered the slut market. Considering how badly they botched last season's winner Kelly Clarkson's career (yeah, yeah, she's making a film with Justin Guarini, which should thrill the hell out of anyone still pining for Frankie & Annette movies), their credibility are starmakers is already shot. The best thing that can be said for AMERICAN IDOL now is it beats watching BRIDEZILLAS. Or the Superbowl.

Was chatting with Adi Tantimedh over the weekend about ludditism in LORD OF THE RINGS (click here if you don't know what I'm talking about, or here) when I stumbled on a blinding revelation: Tolkien wasn't a Luddite at all!

Despite Tolkien's own denial of any allegorical purpose to the books (a case can be made for the movie YELLOW SUBMARINE being after the same conflict) it's a matter of faith among many LORD OF THE RINGS fans that the novel is loosely based on World War II, with Sauron as Hitler, etc. etc. (I suppose in that scenario the human race would represent The Jews, with the Storm Trooper-esque Orcs trying to wipe them out.) But if Sauron is Hitler, who does Saruman represent? And Gandalf?

Then Adi reminded me of the setup of the Shire, home of the Hobbits, and suddenly it hit me: what Tolkien describes as the culture of the Shire is virtually identical to Karl Marx's vision of the Worker's Paradise ­ a commune such as Communism is named for. If Sauron is Hitler, Gandalf become Stalin, who overthrows the treacherous collaborationist leader of his order (Bukharin? Or Lenin, who died unsuccessfully suggesting Stalin be removed from his post?) to become Supreme Ruler ­ and the Battle Of Helm's Deep becomes the Siege Of Stalingrad! Whasisname the head of the Elves in Rivendell makes a great Frederick Engels surrogate! And British Communists of the 30s and 40s often had strong Luddite tendencies. It all makes sense now: Tolkien was a Communist, and LORD OF THE RINGS is Communist propaganda, preparing generations of the young for the glorious future revolution! Or should I say Comrade Tolkien? I haven't got time to pursue this, but anyone who wants to is welcome to. I'm sure there's some Lit student somewhere who could get a decent Master's thesis out of it.

Before I forget ­ I don't normally do this and don't play to do it again, but I owe AiT/PlanetLar Books publisher Larry Young a favor or two, and since I'm not going to say I like the review copies he sends me when I don't, this is the best I can do, so here goes ­ writer William Harms is prepping a new graphic novel for Larry's company:

Arizona, 1889: Two desperate brothers pull off a white-knuckled stagecoach robbery. They think their troubles are behind them when they stash the cash in a desert hideaway ­ but their misfortune is just beginning. The Smith brothers have wandered into a horror from the region's shamanistic tribal past ­ and when the dead start rising from their graves to stalk and consume the living, the Smiths find themselves fighting for their lives in an undead nightmare. Jailed and tortured in a dusty frontier town overwhelmed by zombies, the boys bust free and join a ragged band of townspeople for a gut-wrenching Old West showdown against the ravenous, shambling dead.

So here's the problem: William's looking for an artist. Someone who can credibly draw "horses, wagons, stagecoaches, all that good stuff not to mention era costuming and the horror bits. So here's your big chance to impress him. If your work meets the criteria (being a good artist helps too) email William with either the address of your website (preferred) or with appropriate samples of your work. Bear in mind there's no advance money. SPECIAL CRANKY NOTE: SEND TO HIM, NOT ME. Samples for this that are sent to me will be discarded, not forwarded. I'm a little too cramped for time this week to deal with them.

Reviews'll be back next week. And, since someone just e-mailed me to ask, yes, I am still reviewing Independent and Small Press Comics. I won't be at the Alternate Press Expo this weekend, but if I can find someone to do a con report, I'll run it next week. Any volunteers?

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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