Issue #76

It seems like every month these days comics are at a turning point, but the landscape wnever really seems to become less bleak. As I said last week, upheavals at DC Comics really don't mean anything unless it means no more business-as-usual, but the fact of an upheaval at least suggests the possibility of a turning point. Likewise, Marvel stands at a potential turning point, with their continuing onslaught of movies as well as new lines like Epic (see below), and the potential flood of publicity that could draw new interest, readers and money after years of attrition and drought. But then they get bushwhacked by financial reports of investors selling off stock to cash in before DAREDEVIL hits, as well as articles in magazines like NEWSWEEK that appear to be puff pieces but dangle the potential for doom and gloom in ways no amount of puffery can dispel. Not that there aren't signs – there are always signs – of potential boom times to come. "Comics activism" is a battle cry of the day in many pro, fan and semi-pro quarters – but it has yet to suggest anything even vaguely resembling critical mass. DC Comics and Future Comics are experimenting with making their product returnable, an (at last!) adaptation to the difficult times in the current comics shop market that shifts the risk of new product off the retailer and onto the publisher. But will it make a difference? Journalista! has a good piece this morning about flatlined comics sales in March, and how retailers complain about the lack of more Kids' Comics but don't order the ones that exist, and there's no reason to think they won't behave the same way with returnable comics. (Returning comics sounds too much like work.) Even really good "mainstream" titles like 21 DOWN and SLEEPER, even the widely praised Y: THE LAST MAN, don't get much in the way of retailer support, even though they'd made great come-ons for general readers, if the word about them could just get out there.

So... every month another turning point, but nothing ever really seems to turn. Perhaps it's time for the American comics market to come to some real consensus of what it wants to become. Enough of companies fighting to dominate the industry; it's like fighting over Lichtenstein. Do we want real change and growth or is it just simpler (not to mention more likely) to squabble over our little island?

I don't have the answer. I don't want to hurl "answers" around. Like I said, we need a consensus. Any pro who wants the forum can send the column short pieces on what they think comics should become over the next ten years (and, if you like, suggestions on how to get them there). We need some public discussion, because the view from this island is getting old, and it really is time to go somewhere else. And we ought to do it together.

James Ellroy claims (or has claimed, in interviews) to be a right-winger, but I've long suspected he was really an ultraliberal in wolf's clothing. Certainly that's suggested by DARK BLUE, the new film (reviews have been calling it a "noir," but it isn't and I won't) from director Ron Shelton and screenwriter David Ayer. The only reason it's not 100% certain is that Ellroy only provided the story, which might have been reworked by Shelton and Ayer (who scripted the similarly-themed Densel Washington vehicle TRAINING DAY). But it has Ellroy's sweat stains all over it. Police corruption is Ellroy's métier, and he never really bothers with heroes and villains; his stories really come down to bad cops with good instincts and their own moral codes against bad cops with no morals at all - and against heartless psycho criminals, of course – and his theme is how men either drown in their own moral darkness or painfully claw their way back up from it. In the role of his life in DARK BLUE, Kurt Russell plays LAPD special unit hot dog Eldon Perry, who was raised, in his own words, "to be a gunfighter" and has spent a career getting away with murder, bolstered by a good old boy network inside the department. But he's having a few bad days (paralleling the LAPD's bad days as they await the outcome of the Rodney King trial, which is the film's backdrop and its moral reference point), despite his impending promotion to lieutenant: his marriage is collapsing, he has a deputy chief gunning for his badge, he's saddled with a callow partner who can't seem to do the job expected of him, and his corrupt boss, who lets him know in no uncertain terms that ultimately Perry is nothing more than a brutal lapdog expected to perform violent tricks on demand, won't let him crack a case. If I keep using the word "moral," it's because DARK BLUE, despite the litany of cop movie clichés spouted by many of its characters about the thin blue line that's all that stands between civilization and savagery, is one of the few films of recent vintage that takes a true moral stand, though it's a morality no more pure and clear cut than the film's characters, all of whom are tainted to one degree or another by mistakes that others use against them. (Ving Rhames, Lolita Davidovitch, Scott Speedman, Khandi Alexander, Michael Michele and Kurupt are all terrific in it, though it's clearly Russell's piece.)

But this is what I like about good crime fiction. Most movies (and most books, and certainly most comics and TV shows) start out with a rigid morality, which becomes the Rubicon the story can't cross. A good crime story – and there are better than DARK BLUE, but not many – explores its way to a moral viewpoint. That's what Ellroy, Ayer and Shelton do here, and for a long time there's no real telling which way it's going to go. It's sophisticated stuff – a lot better than I'm used to from Shelton – and it finally, albeit uncertainly, establishes a first moral principle: law and order have to come from the top down, and lawless cops ultimately create a lawless society. That's not a concept you see in cop films very often. I've read complaints about Russell's (very funny) soliloquy at the end, and how the third act collapses, but as far as I'm concerned it hangs together fine. Go see it, particularly if you've ever wanted action films that think about consequences. If you don't, you'll regret it. I don't know if it's the best film of 2003, but, two months in, it's the best so far.

In case you're still harboring any delusions that the administration's current fixation on Saddam Hussein has anything remotely to do with "war on terrorism," (and if you're sure the President of the United States would never lie about anything that serious – unlike something frivolous like, say, his military recordread this) here's a brief history of the war on Iraq:

February 1992: The staff of then deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz drafts a policy paper (eventually rejected) for the use of U.S. military power "deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role."

September 1992: The Pentagon's Defense Planning Guidance draws up a plan for an invasion to remove Saddam Hussein from power, at the request of then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. (After leaving office, it may be remembered, Cheney oversaw a corporation, Halliburton, that dealt with Iraq against the terms of the U.N. embargo.)

1-26-1998: Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, now Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Defense respectively, then private citizens involved with arch-conservative think tank Project For A New American Century, lobby the Clinton White House to initiate a regime-toppling assault on Iraq. They specify the war should take place whether allies supported it or not. Following Clinton's refusal, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz approach Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott. Both letters claim Iraq possesses "weapons of mass destruction" but, per current administration policy, offer no proof, and cite full scale war as the only option for intervention in Iraq, and the only means to "protect" the oil supplies there.

September 2000: Using the 1992 Pentagon report as its basis, Project For A New America, including Dick Cheney and Elliot Abrams as well as Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, issues a report calling for American domination of 21st century international politics. (Others involved with PNAC include presidential brother/Florida governor Jeb Bush; Cheney Chief Of Staff I. Lewis Libby; current US special envoy to Afghanistan Zlamay Khalizad; editor-commentator and ex-Dan Quayle Chief Of Staff William Kristol; Deputy Secretary Of State Richard Armitage; and US trade representative Robert Zoellick. Most are connected to the oil industry, and many to Enron.) Among the recommendations: "While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein." It also recommends building a military large enough to "rapidly deploy and win multiple simultaneous large-scale wars."

April 2001: The James A Baker III Institute For Public Policy Of Rice University in conjunction with the Council On Foreign Relations releases a white paper called Strategic Energy Policy – Challenges For The 21st Century. Members of the Council On Foreign Relations include Vice President (and reigning administration energy czar) Dick Cheney, as well as Enron chairman Kenneth Lay. At the time, Cheney is also have private discussions with Lay and others in the energy industry on possible administration courses of action on energy policy, which, in the aftermath of the Enron scandal, Cheney's office has refused to make public. Part of the report focuses on the results of the Iraq oil embargo – "... the resulting tight markets have increased U.S. and global vulnerability to disruption and provided adversaries undue potential influence over the price of oil. Iraq has become a key 'swing' producer, posing a difficult situation for the U.S. government... Like it or not, Iraqi reserves represent a major asset that can quickly add capacity to world oil markets..." – and suggests "regime change" as a tool for accessing Iraqi oil reserves, by lining up "key allies" and using "Iraq's ability to maintain and acquire weapons of mass destruction" as a rationale for an attack on Iraq, strongly warning against any accommodation with Iraq not involving Saddam Hussein's removal. The white paper becomes the foundation of the administration's National Energy Policy, including this year's State Of The Union address call to develop hydrogen powered cars. (Conspiracy theory implication: Cheney's refusal to release records of his private discussions with energy leaders is due to conversations about possible invasion of Iraq to access Iraqi oil reserves, and release of the records would undermine the administration's war policy. Like most conspiracy theories, impossible to prove or disprove in the absence of the pertinent documents.)

9-11-2001: though earlier in the day cautious about military action against Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaida, Rumsfeld by afternoon is, according to notes made at the time as reported by CBS News, demanding "best info fast. Judge whether good enough hit S.H." – meaning Saddam Hussein – "at same time. Not only UBL" – the initials used to identify Osama bin Laden. "Go massive," the notes quote him as saying. "Sweep it all up. Things related and not."

9-12-2001: (From Bob Woodward's BUSH AT WAR) "...at 4 PM, the [National Security Council] reconvened... Rumsfeld insisted on a point he has made before. [Emphasis mine.] 'Are we going against terrorism more broadly than just Al Qaeda? Why shouldn't we go against Iraq, not just Al Qaeda?' he asked. Rumsfeld was not speaking only for himself when he raised the question. His deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, was committed to a police that would make Iraq a principal target of the first round in the war on terrorism. Rumsfeld was raising the possibility that they could take advantage of the opportunity offered by the terrorist attacks to go after Saddam immediately."

On a semi-related political note, the war on terrorism continues domestically. With Herr Ashcroft shorn of his proposed spy force of Americans on Americans and with the Pentagon's plan for electronic spying on Americans killed by Congress, the Department Of Transportation is trying their hand at the general domestic surveillance game with a plan to label anyone who flies on an airplane as a "potential terrorist." (The FAA has already been testing a profiling system.) Loosely translated, this means as soon as you purchase a plane ticket, the FBI will have authority (under the Patriot Act) to open a file on you, tap your phones, open your mail, monitor your Internet usage, interview your friends, family, neighbors and colleagues, check your bank accounts, etc. etc., and no nasty court oversight necessary. All that information would pretty much be available to any government agency (not to mention the inevitable spillover to various private corporations, etc.) – in fact, pretty much everyone but you. Not that you've got anything to hide... Fly the friendly skies...

Thanks to Rob Beddard for pointing out the website of the week, this one courtesy of the Office Of Homeland Security. If you thought that duct tape-and-plastic advice was spot on, wait until you see their suggestions for surviving other terrorist threats. My personal favorite is "nuclear blast," which recommends, if you can't find any way to get underground, standing behind a thick wall. (Presumably for the eight or so seconds you've got left.) Personally, I recommend standing in front of one, in some pose you've worked out with family or other loved ones in advance, so at least your permanent shadow will be recognizable. (In the immortal words of Ultravox, "The sun, so low, turns our silhouettes to gold. Hiroshima mon amour.")

Mail regarding last week. First, a correction:

"JOHN Q is not the highest-opening film ever for the month of February. Until DAREDEVIL opened, JOHN Q held the Presidents' Day Weekend opening box office record. HANNIBAL holds the all-time February opening, with more than $58 million in 2001."

Responding to the comment (NBC's, not mine) that an Iraq war could end up deposing British prime minister Tony Blair instead of Saddam Hussein (though there's no doubt in my mind that, whatever the other consequences, if we go in, Saddam is gone), a Scottish reader sent this observation:

"The UK as a whole isn't due another general election for a few years yet but in just three months, Scotland goes to the polls to elect the Scottish Parliament - who are the MPs for Scotland as we're devolved - and up until a few months ago it was thought that Labour would win, but now that looks very shaky. There are two interesting points here:

"1 - the opposition parties all support complete independence for Scotland from the rest of the UK

"2 - Scottish Labour has to dance to the national party tune - pro war - even though defence is not an issue for the Scottish Parliament (like all UK matters, that is debated in Westminster at the House of Commons)

"So basically, George Bush's plans could lead to Scotland being granted independence and therefore a break-up of the United Kingdom. Very interesting stuff, especially when you consider that Scotland is the oil capital of Europe."

But the sun'll never set on the Empire, right? Right?

The final episode of the prison soap opera OZ (HBO, 9PM Sunday) aired, and, like the finale of creator Tom Fontana's cop show HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREETS, it was both satisfying and gnawing, bringing full circle a couple of major storylines and leaving many more dangling uncertainly. As with HOMICIDE, there's a thematic reason for this. In that case it was cops going on with their lives, in this it's men spending very many years behind bars, and in both cases it was Fontana reminding us that these were never "stories" in the traditional sense, that we were eavesdroppers, trespassers, voyeurs peeking in on a world we can never (and, in the case of the Oswald Correctional Facility, would never in a million years want to) be part of, and the "ending" is just us turning our eyes away. Those worlds go on without us. So do many of the characters, though Sunday's episode also left a flood of bodies in its wake, starting with Warden Leo Glynn, who died the week before proving Oz has arguably the worst security in the history of the American penal system. Little logic glitches like that were why, after four years as my all-out favorite TV show, OZ slipped last year to being my favorite TV show by default. But the finale was pleasantly free of overt ones (well... there was one...)and pulling some amazing alchemy by turning two of the most vile characters in the show, the psychopathic Aryan footsoldier Robson and the reptilian, sex-addicted female guard Claire Howell, sympathetic and vulnerably human. Almost everyone seemed vulnerable this week, with Fontana getting one last blow-out grab at all the possibilities of human frailty. Even hardass new warden Martin Querns throws up at the sight of an execution. Saddest and most touching were the fates of key prisoners Miguel Alvarez and Ryan O'Reily (Kirk Acevedo and Dean Winters, respectively, both stunningly good actors). Alvarez, who went from trying to be a power player in the prison to trying to prove he belonged with his "tribe" to simply trying to survive and wait out his time, finally gains his "escape" from Oz, the only one left to him, while O'Reily, who for three seasons was in some way behind virtually every bad thing that happened in Oz, loses what's dearest to him and finds his humanity. Of all the characters in Oz, O'Reily was one of the least likely for redemption, and his "transformation" is so understated and powerful that it beggars almost any other event of the episode, though I'm not sure anyone who hasn't watched since the beginning grasp how genuinely touching the scenes with the O'Reilys were. The one storyline that has anchored the show – the endless struggle between alcoholic ex-lawyer Tobias Beecher and Aryan Brotherhood leader Vern Schillinger – comes to an abrupt and violent end, cleverly foreshadowed (and, to anyone who knows the play, enjoyably telegraphed) by a prison production of MACBETH. The fallout (pretty literally) brings the show to a close, but, as longsuffering bleeding heart subwarden Tim McManus, his own fate unknown as the credits role, says as a bus rolls away from Oswald, "We'll be back to Oz before you know it." I kind of hope not; it'd be hard to reassemble this terrific cast, and, as the HOMICIDE movie that followed up the series indicated there, I'm not sure there's anything left there to say. The final episode wasn't perfect, but it was about as good as could be expected, and in the case of OZ that was pretty damn good. I'll miss it.

Checked in on AMERICAN IDOL (Fox, 8PM Tuesdays) for lack of anything better to do last week, and, lord, was that bunch awful! That any of them moved on to the next round shows what a joke the show is. I notice not only is no one (besides tweaked contestants) contradicting resident badmouther Simon Cowell's gloom and doom this year, Paula Abdul and Randy Johnson are more and more often chiming in. (Or, in Paula's case, squirming even more vigorously for something nice to say.) It's clear this year many contestants are out to show they're TV personalities rather than singers. And I have to ask: when exactly did the inability to hold a note for more than one second become an indicator of talent? Whoever the goofball was who tried to sing the old Righteous Brothers' chestnut "Unchained Melody" more than quintupled the number of notes in the song, warbling "oh-oh my-y-y lu-u-uve, my-hi da-har-har-har-li-hing, I-uh hunger fo-o-ur your-a tou-uch" etc. without every grasping the notion that whatever intensity the song has comes from the pureness of tone, representing pureness of emotional intent, that the Righteous Brothers brought to it. I never much liked the song to begin with (you just knew when he was putting out stuff like that sooner or later producer Phil Spector would pretty much have to shoot someone) but turning into into a festival of warbling really makes it sound like crap. Didn't anyone ever tell any of these people that if they want to win a singing competition, they ought to at least learn to sing?

Ended up reading three Tokyo Pop (5900 Wilshire Blvd Suite 2000, Los Angeles CA 90036) trade paperbacks last week: MARMALADE BOY 5 ($9.99), WISH 4 ($9.99) and SORCERER HUNTERS 1 ($12.95). I've been a fan of the gentle MARMALADE BOY from the start, and as it winds toward a close (the story is a six-book miniseries), heroine Miki and her brother-by-remarriage Yuu have dropped their defenses and gotten involved with each other (innocently, of course) and grow steadily more serious while their former romantic interests cope with the situation, and Yuu continues his search for his real father. The series is now deceptively sedate, but anyone who can't see The Big Kicker that waits in the final volume coming just isn't paying enough attention. The only question now is whether they'll play it straight or pull a last-second swerve. WISH, by Japanese all-woman superstar studio Clamp, doesn't fair quite so well in its final volume, getting way way too cute and convenient in a desperate lunge toward a happy ending. Yeah, I know, it's just another gentle fantasy, but the (literal) deus ex machine just doesn't play properly, even if the whole story is heavily laden with really weird quasi-Christian imagery, and none of the characters are ever seriously developed. But I suppose that was the point.

I know SORCERER HUNTERS is a popular manga (was it WIRED that recently listed heroines Tira and Chocolate Misu among the sexiest characters in manga and anime?), but there's only one word for it: incoherent. Sorry.

From these shores, Brass Ring Comics (1152 W 24th St #1, San Pedro CA 90731) has released fictions #2 ($2.50) with three stories written by Johnny Lowe. It's uneven. "Birthday Boy," drawn by Seaward Tuthill, reminds me of the stories Last Gasp Comix used to run in SLOW DEATH FUNNIES during the underground days, and is fairly well done, though it follows a programmatic logic that presents no surprise to anyone who ever read an EC comic. "A Glorious Future Can Be Yours," minimalistically drawn by Ted Seko, bites off way more than it can chew as it tries to extrapolate some current trends into a future society, and flounders on a nonsensical ending. Better is the slice of life "Nibbler's Night," with art by Ellen Lindner, effectively outlining how a man's life slips away from him and what he learns to settle for. It's a nice job that indicates Lowe's talents may naturally tilt in a "real world" direction.

I'm a smidge peeved at Rich Johnston this morning. In the Sunday LYING IN THE GUTTERS he did a big semi-exposé on Marvel's new Epic line, and alluded to a brief e-mail discussion we'd had about it, saying:

"'Aliens/Dredd' writer Andy Diggle was also mentioned to me as a contributor, by he has refused to comment. As did Steven Grant, who declined to say whether he was involved or not."

What I actually said was: "Got a couple pitches in, but neither have been accepted yet. Haven't really paid much attention to who else is involved (not that I'm involved) yet... Sorry..." Which isn't the same thing as "refusing to say." I said, and what I said was: I don't know. As for Rich's contention that Marvel's headhunting Comic Book Resources writers for the Epic line, with the success they had with Gail Simone I wouldn't be surprised, but if they are I haven't seen any sign of it. I was actually approached by an artist they'd approached, who asked me to come up with some story pitches for him. So I did. Aside from some pleasant conversations with Epic editor Stephanie Moore, end of story. So far. Might change, might not. We'll see.

Y'know, Rich, you really don't need to tart these things up. That's the sort of thing I'd expect from that other gossip column, the one you used to write...

But there is that Lockheed story, drawn by Paul Smith, in X-MEN UNLIMITED #42 – due out from Marvel today, if I'm not mistaken. And if you haven't decided to pick up the MORTAL SOULS trade paperback from Avatar Press yet, here's the commentary of the week from a pleased reader:

"Just thought I'd let you know I brought the MORTAL SOULS trade and was quite happy. Cool story that left me hungry for more! (there will be more won't there?).

"I was happy that it didn't get carried away trying to gross the reader out or titillate like other Avatar books do. Although it did to an extent do both (a friend of mine flicking through the book stopped to read the strip club scene...), the story came first, and for that I am glad. I do wish there had been a fourth issue or something just to stretch it out a bit, but as I said I'm left hungry for more, so I guess it's fine without it.

"Also thought I'd let you know that I got it at an actual book shop and it pretty much had the best display out of all the comics. The shop has two comic sections, one where all the trades are stacked, with Marvel and DC the only ones really getting some display, but everything just crammed into shelves.

"Just past that is the new releases, and MORTAL SOULS is middle of the shelf, and due to an angle on the shelf, MORTAL SOULS is the first book that can be seen, and is visible from a great distance.

"You beat X-FORCE, APACHE SKIES, JSA etc. (I almost missed but only because it just didn't occur to me that they would put that in the best spot... the joys of bookstores over comic shops). TRUE STORY SWEAR TO GOD and INTERMAN were also in good visible spots.

"Can't wait for a sequel or for MY FLESH IS COOL!

"Congrats on a good job, and cheers for the good read (or reads, as it were)."

Maybe that'll sway you. The Star Code order number is STAR17698.

Meanwhile, BADLANDS (from AiT/PlanetLar Books, Starcode STAR16194) made Sean Kelly's "Best 19 Comic Books For Your Bookshelf Of 2002 over at Ink 19, and Marcia Allis over at Sequential Tart spread around a little BADLANDS love herself. Thanks, everyone.

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.

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