Issue #81

Not that there hasn't been some glacially accrued movement over the years. But back in the first couple unionizing attempts in the industry (the first abortive attempt, including reasons it fell apart, is described in some detail in Greg Sadowski's fabulous biography, B. KRIGSTEIN; a second, mainly among longstanding DC writers, was thwarted when DC simply fired them and enlisted a bunch of young turks to replace them) "creator rights" weren't even much of an issue. Few really questioned the absolute right of the company to own everything, and publishers have generally preferred to keep it that way. There are a tiny handful who have absolutely no problem with full creator ownership of creations - the main reason I work with Avatar Press and AiT/PlanetLar Books - but publishers traditionally prefer the golden rule: the man with the gold makes the rules. Media deals are what's driving many smaller publishers these days, and they insist on total control over any ancillary dealmaking as well as, usually, the lion's share of any monies coming in from such deals. Even today, many publishers, whether they publicly admit it or not, take the stance that money is the most important element in comics and creators - unless their names are proven to strongly (and positively) influence sales or garner publicity - are pretty much incidental to the process. The standard POV is that they can to all intents and purposes hire anyone off the street to create comics, and, with a little coaching, end up with anything as good as is currently being published. (I once heard a very fan-renowned editor say that exact thing.)

Fact is: not much of the talent really gives a damn about creator rights either. Except their own. They certainly don't want to work (or, god forbid, fight) for them, and there isn't really that strong a consensus on what creator rights actually are. In 1988, a range of talents including Steve Bissette, Dave Sim, Laird & Eastman and Scott McCloud, issued The Creator's Bill Of Rights, which made for a fine rabble-rousing manifesto, but not one much of the comics talent at the time was eager to get behind; it basically called for total role reversal in the business, with creators totally in control and publishers/editors reduced to mere functionaries. Which, let's face it, was never likely to happen, except insofar as publishers felt it was worth their while to play that game, and the BATMAN movie a year later wiped out any widespread possibility of that by reminding publishers that franchises were where the money is. Plus there was that little problem of tons of talent waiting on the horizon: the black and white comic craze of the '80s in the wake of TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (the multimedia success of which for Eastman and Laird helped stimulate The Creator's Bill Of Rights in the first place by showing that creators as well as publishers could get rich off franchises) had, even in its collapse, generated a whole breed of writer and artist who never would've been able to claim to be "professionals" otherwise and had convinced many publishers that lack of obvious talent was no impediment to creating comics that sold. (Many of the black and white publishers and talent could also claim the fault for the collapse lay not in themselves but in their stars, since what took down many of the black and white comics was the collapse of Scott Rosenberg's distribution company, though the craze was another bubble that would've popped sooner or later in any case.) The main fact in the lives of most comics talent is this: there's always someone standing behind you who wants your job, and the number of readers likely to jump with you from project to project is negligible. (Or, rather, many are often willing, but getting the news to them about where you are next remains difficult.) Even in the boom times (and these are certainly not boom times) the financial structure of the business, as a rule, has been geared toward keeping talent dependent on the publisher; any move toward "creator's rights" that mitigate that isn't going to be embraced by publishers, though few of them would care of think of it in those terms. In most cases, publishers will simply cite the bottom line and (understandably) consider their own financial situation as somewhat more pressing than the talent's.

"Creator's rights" have always been something of a shell game anyway, a way for smaller or weaker publishers to lure talent away from other publishers. Eclipse Comics started in the '70s as a hotbed of creator ownership, and ended in the '90s as the trigger for the ongoing war over MIRACLEMAN (whose chain of "creation" opens other thorny questions). First Comics made waves with claims of "creator ownership" as a come-on, but, if you read the fine print in the contracts, put creative control firmly in the hands of the company, removed talent's ability to make outside deals involving their own creations, and strewed the road to "recovery" of properties in the event the company stopped publishing them with all kinds of booby traps. I only cite First because I've personally dealt with their contracts, but all these practices are pretty commonplace among "creator-owned" publishers. Most creators are more than happy to sign off on them, just to get something into print.

But now Marvel resurrects the Epic line and everyone's wondering what the creator rights package is, because Epic was once Marvel's creator-owned line, when Archie Goodwin was running it. (It was a spinoff of EPIC magazine, which was started because Stan Lee saw HEAVY METAL in an airport and wondered why Marvel didn't have a magazine like that; the result was the answer: Marvel couldn't make a magazine like HEAVY METAL, which in its day was the essence of hip, exposing America for the first time to "Americanized" - that is, bowdlerized - mostly French comic strips, which were so different in style and subject matter from most American comics that they seemed like two totally different beasts. Sort of like people view manga today. EPIC tried hard but was always pretty tepid and "normal" by comparison.) But even before Archie left for DC Comics, Epic Comics was backing off from creator-owned material, trying to create its own "universe" and facilitating Marvel character graphic novels, like my own THE PUNISHER: RETURN TO BIG NOTHING, done with Mike Zeck and John Beatty. Whatever connections the talent pool makes between Epic Comics and creator rights is mostly nostalgia, and certainly nothing Marvel can be expected to pay much attention to.

If there's been any fallout from 30 years of chatting up "creator rights," it's this: participation. Both Marvel and DC (not sure about CrossGen and others) now have participation programs, which means that, unlike previous eras, if you create a new character, you get a cut of the profits from any use of that character. (Usually with various restrictions.) That's as good as deal as most people are likely to get out of the major companies, in terms of rights.

And y'know what? They have a system that works for them as far as they're concerned. Unless they have incentive to change that system to further benefit talent, they have no reason to change it. Driving home what I've coined as "the Shooter principle": if it ain't your money, it ain't your company.

True creator rights come out of the barrel of a printing press. Eastman and Laird published TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES themselves. If we really want creator rights, what's necessary is a new system that facilitates the creation and sale of creator-owned self-published comics. There's absolutely no reason to expect DC, Marvel or any other larger publishers, and certainly not Diamond, to generate that. It's not in their interest. The standard pattern of trying to work for Marvel or DC so you can make a name for yourself and then trying to generate your own material off that reputation only reinforces the notion that Marvel and DC are the be-all and end-all of the industry, and reaffirms their dominance over it. Let's not kid ourselves that the existing system can be made to work for us, or that creating a new one won't be a Herculean task. And if we don't want to attempt that, let's not kid ourselves that we're seriously interested in creator's rights.

If even networks as marginal as the WB feel that way, is it any wonder that audiences are tuning out the myriad identikit "dramas" and "comedies" and soaking up "reality programming" (which is increasingly being termed "unscripted programming" now, though that's not entirely accurate either). Pretty much for lack of anything else to kill time with. Latest up: the Sci-Fi Channel's plans to set teams in a replica of Mars conditions and see who lasts the longest. Stan Lee's trying to get into the act too, pitching around a show where contestants create - and dress up as - their own superheroes. Prize: a movie deal and your character published in his own comic book. Something like SOLARMAN, I presume...

Of course, if most cable networks prefer to run infomercials or mimic/repeat network TV shows, there's always THE SHIELD (FX, 10PM Tuesdays), which wrapped up its second season last night (though it's still about 12 hours ahead of me) and 24, returning after a couple weeks' hiatus to push into the season's third act: having found and more or less harmlessly detonated the terrorist nuke, anti-terror op extraordinaire Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland) is now on a race to stop the President from retaliating against framed Middle Eastern countries and possibly triggering World War III, while TV's dumbest blonde, daughter Kim (Elisha Cuthbert) gets herself held hostage yet again! 24 has managed to largely dodge that "treading water" feel much of the first season had, and it's far and away still the best show on network TV, but, please, next season can't Kim just be window dressing instead of trying to give her a storyline? Please? Over at THE SHIELD, it's been an eventful season, and I've come to like the show quite a bit (I was more ambivalent last season, until the last couple eps), but there's something of a treading water feel settling in there. Mainly it's due to the lack of consequences. They keep teasing us with Vic and his crew of bent cops finally getting clipped for their sins - the show's editors have become experts at making coming attractions look like one thing when, in context, they turn out to be something entirely different - but the guys always manage to squirm out. While there's a Bilkoesque satisfaction in that, it also points up the main weakness of ongoing series centering on basically bad guys; at some point, dodging all comeuppance equals dodging credibility. On the other hand, change undermines the premise of the show. Making THE SHIELD, as I've said before, a far better show that you'd expect and not quite as good as it should be. It's a conundrum they should creatively sort out before next season.

Speaking of next season, SOUTH PARK (Comedy Central, 10PM Wednesday) begins its new season either tonight or next Wednesday (it's been renewed for two more years, with an option for 2006). And Kenny's alive again. Just thought you might want to know, since no one much talks about SOUTH PARK anymore.

Turns out if you're going to complain about me complaining, you'll have to extend those complaints to the press and the Pentagon, both of which are suddenly behaving like sharks in bloody water, echoing doubts and suspicions I've mentioned here and elsewhere recently. The Los Angeles Times speculated that finding weapons of mass destruction is so important to American credibility in Iraq - it hasn't helped that we've inspected a couple dozen supposed sites so far and come up bupkis - that if they aren't found we'll have to plant them. The Washington Post ran an article on how high-ranking Republicans are quietly trying to convince the Hand Puppet he's getting bum advice from Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. Much of the Pentagon's moaning expressed disfavor with Rumsfeld's chosen tactics, but the quote most seized by the press came from Gen. William Wallace, who stated,

"the enemy we're fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against"

which suddenly snapped everyone's attention back to retired Marine general Paul Van Riper, who ran the Iraqi side of the initial war games, as revealed in ARMY TIMES last year. The war games were designed to test the Rumsfeld theory of a sleek modern army of small units moving with hi-tech weapons and blinding speed, flexibility and control. (Army as covert action team, in other words.) Only problem was: Van Riper didn't play by the rules. Instead of a standard engagement by the Iraqi army with American troops, he eluded "our" tech surveillance via bike messengers and cell phones, focused on guerrilla warfare (apparently with the lessons of Vietnam in mind), and briefly halted the war games when his fictitious suicide bombers sank our fleet. Our undeterred government simply restarted the games and imposed on Van Riper a set of rules designed to give results that would validate the Rumsfeld model. Refusing to go by a script, Van Riper walked out. (When I brought this up at one point, one war supporter told me that Van Riper was a highly experienced tactician - very true - and the Iraqis had no one even remotely approaching his level. Which remains to be seen.)

Former army strategist Col. Robert Killebrew, ret., efficiently summed it up: "Any time you make a plan that requires the enemy's cooperation, you're in trouble - and somebody should've picked up on that."

The most curious development out of all this is a sudden questioning by the press about what our government is really up to in Iraq. Lots of niggling around the edges as disillusionment (not so much about the progress of the war, I should mention, as about the government's former starry eyed prognostications that the press, stupidly, swallowed wholesale and without question, so it serves them right) sets in, but the WASHINGTON MONTHLY goes balls to the wall with an answer to the question being asked so much by the press recently: just why does Rumsfeld want to prove his theories of modern combat so badly that he'd cut the number of troops required by the Pentagon's war plan in half? The answer - get ready to shout "conspiracy theory," war supporters - is that Iraq is only the beginning. Not that it's new to anyone listening to what's been coming out of the Pentagon for the last six months (or the New Century Foundation), but apparently it's a shock to the press: the invasion's primary purpose isn't the removal of either Saddam or the WMDs, but is the first step in the "reordering" of the Middle East. The article uses the term "startling deception," which no doubt will also be applied to the article, but recent government saber-rattling at least seems to suggest support: on the one hand, there was the statement that "Islamic radicals" are fleeing Iraq for Iran, suggesting we'll be turning our eyes in that direction soon (Islamic radicals being terrorists and this being nothing more than an extension of the war on terrorism, after all), while the administration also touted the (so far unproven) rumor that Syria has been proving the Iraqis with night vision goggles, also suggesting possible excursions in that direction. Ariel Sharon went on Israeli TV recently and boasted that after the US was done with Iraq it would go after other "terrorist Arab states. One scenario I saw recently - wish I could remember where - sets up a timeline where, following our conquest of Iraq, the administration "reveals" that Saddam moved WMDs into Syria prior to the invasion. The Syrians deny this, and since, in Bushspeak, denial is proof, we invade Syria to root them out. Conspiracy theory? God, let's hope so. (Of course, the administration was also pushing for their continued tax cut with the argument that without it returning troops won't have jobs when they return home after the war, so maybe there's no more war to come after all. But wait a minute. It's a volunteer army. They'll have jobs, as long as they stay in the army. And what was that about "the war on terror" going on possibly for decades? I seem to remember some president spouting that a couple years back.)

Domestically, the same players continue to inch toward flat-out scandal. A major architect of administration foreign policy, Richard Perle (he basically concocted the "cakewalk to Baghdad" theory) was "forced out" last week (he's actually still on Rumsfeld's Defense Policy Board, he's just not running it anymore) for lobbying for Defense Dept. business for a corporation called Global Crossing (Perle got $125,000 up front, with $600,000 more coming "on delivery"). Perle doesn't think there's anything wrong in profiteering off his position, he just didn't want to cause "even a moment's distraction" from the war. THE WALL STREET JOURNAL - hardly a bastion of anti-administration liberalism - is now tracking widespread profiteering by others on Rumsfeld's board. "Unavailable for comment," Rumsfeld was presumably too busy handing out contracts to VP Cheney's former firm of Halliburton. Or, we should say, once and future, since Cheney's still on the take from them himself, another rising scandal, esp. since he nearly bankrupted the firm by merging them at great cost to the company in the late 90s with a dying company the Bush family had a lot of money at risk in. The merger saved the Bush family fortune, and now the Iraqi war - and all the various profitable government contracts being handed to Halliburton in the wake of it - seems poised to save Halliburton as well. Speaking of Cheney, a recent report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission reveals that the California energy crisis of 2001 - you remember Enron, right - was not caused by, as Cheney insisted, environmental restrictions and bureaucratic interference in the energy industry, but by market manipulation by greedy energy providers and brokers. Like Enron. (Cheney attempted to use the "energy crisis" to push for environmental deregulation and government subsidies for energy companies.) Due to California's recent lawsuits against energy corporations to recover what was bilked out of the state, this isn't going away as an issue anytime soon. But it's no wonder Cheney doesn't want anyone to know what was said among his Energy Task Force. On top of all that, an AP wire story last week describes how the panel commission (briefly headed by Henry Kissinger before memories of his previous activities and connections made his participation untenable) is loaded with conflicts of interest, including strong connections to airlines, the intelligence/defense community and political parties, that risk watering down the final report (scheduled for release in the heart of the next presidential season) and suggests the accuracy of the forthcoming report may be "maneuvered" to fit commercial (many of the commissioners have connections to the airlines industry, which stands a good chance of getting walloped by the report) or political ends.

On the international front, our government seems determined to make the world believe we're arrogant idiots. If it's not the House voting to rename France, it's Rumsfeld screaming about the Geneva Convention when American POWs are photographed but insisting it doesn't apply when we photograph POWs, since Rumsfeld conveniently reclassifies the prisoners we take, like those held at Guantanamo Bay, as non-soldiers. Something, by the way, that's specifically prohibited by the Geneva Convention. Meanwhile, The Guardian outted "The Coalition Of The Willing," pointing out that Slovenia, The Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Bulgaria are furious at being named on the list, while Croatia is also protesting that its decision to allow American commercial aircraft to land there does not suggest support of the war and the American government is misrepresenting it, and the Ukraine is claiming Washington's claims about Ukrainian involvement are wrong. Poland apparently managed to scrape up 200 troops for the effort but is annoyed America didn't keep that quiet, since they didn't want their resoundingly anti-war population to know about it. Many countries are refusing to eject Iraqi diplomats. Some coalition. At least Latvia's hanging tough and sending a dozen men to help.

But the biggest shock of the week had nothing to do with terrorism, the war or administration corruption. It's the one thing none of us thought would ever happen in our lifetimes: a smoking ban in New York City! Does this mean the terrorists have won?

Man, there was more going on in politics this week than I thought... Maybe I'll keep it short next week and just talk about all the incidents of domestic terrorism in the wake of war...

Also caught IGBY GOES DOWN (MGM DVD), a black comedy about a resentful teenager (Keiran Culkin, who looks uncannily like a young Robert Downey Jr.) struggling to break out from under his domineering mother's (Susan Sarandon) thumb. Very funny, with sharp direction and snappy dialogue from writer Burr Steers, and good performances from Claire Danes, Jeff Goldblum and Ryan Phillippe as well. The film's only problem is the lack of an ending as sharp and bitter as the rest of the movie; like too many movies of this sort, it ends with a whimper. But it's fun getting there.

Back in the old First Comics days, First was touting Don Lomax's art a lot, and I just never got it. I know people who adored Lomax's work, but it never looked good to me. Fortunately, that's not the case with Lomax's masterpiece, VIETNAM JOURNAL, a fictionalized autobiography of his days as a soldier during the Vietnam War, originally done as an independent comic and recently released in trade paperback by I-Books (24 W 25th St, NY NY 10010; $13.95). Compare it to anything he did at First, and you'll see the syndrome I was talking about above: someone trying to make a name so he can "get to do" the project most dear to his heart. Protagonist Scott Neithammer, aka "Journal," arrives in Nam and is hurled into an immediate and violent re-education about the nature of the war, and proceeds through battle after battle with unnerving realism and a ground-level perspective, to give a strong sense of what it must've been like to be a soldier in the midst of that mess, and his unadorned art and writing style strips the stories of any possible glamorizing. Lomax's politics may not be mine, but that doesn't make the book, or my admiration for it, any less strong.

Gerry Alanguilan's a Philippine artist who occasionally pops up as an inker at major comics companies, but if you read WASTED (Komikero Comics, Box 67, San Pablo City Post Office, Laguna, Philippines 4000; $3.95US) you'll realize what a waste of his talents that is. WASTED collects a crime comic Gerry wrote and drew in the mid-90s, about a would-be musician who goes nuts when all the pressures and betrayals of his life get to him. Not unlike the film FALLING DOWN, but involving a lot more bodies. It's one of those stories congested in overwhelming inevitability, but it's well done. Gerry's has developed as an artist since WASTED - his more recent work has a more illustrative European look, but I sort of prefer the open cleanness of WASTED: more power with fewer lines. Anyway, it's a kick.

There are two issues of A. David Lewis' MORTAL COILS (Red Eye Press, 2303 37th St NW, Washington DC 20007-1833; $2.50@) so far. With art by Jason Copland and Evan Quiring (the latter inked by Darren Merinuk in the first issue and James Cosper in the second) it's sort of an edgier version of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, with two short stories per issue that shift from "reality" on a single premise. In the first issue, a raped woman finds herself in the body of her attacker, and an old man is pursued by killer robots for strange reasons. In the second, a TV producer finds a doorway to her secret fantasies, and a couple of gamblers look for a new way of life after long lifetimes of habit. It's not entirely successful; like many comics, the stories seem slaves to the format. It's not that the writing's bad - Lewis can handle words just fine, and he has decent story ideas; there's definite potential here - but it's like he's so concerned with dodging melodrama that the work never quite gets that visceral edge it needs to really suck us in, and the punchlines just aren't punchy enough to make up for it. (For stories like these, you need at least one or the other.) The art's passable, but what happened to Jason Copland? Though still not quite pro quality yet, his work took a quantum jump in quality from the first issue to the second.

Floyd Choat and Carson Demmans' NIGHT SHIFT is an amusing vignette - it almost plays like a pitch piece for a cartoon show - about monster buddies (picture the four kids in the film version of Stephen King's STAND BY ME as Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy and the Werewolf) hanging out and getting into trouble. It's got decent cartoony art and a couple good jokes, but not much meat. (Floyd can be reached at 4620 64th St, Lubbock TX 79414-4824.) I'm not sure why Demmans (with artist Larned Justin) decided to do a Charlie Chan parody in the multi-issue mini CHARLIE CHONG (Candid Cartoons, Box 471, House Springs MO 63051; 50 cents@) since a) barely anyone remembers Charlie Chan anymore and b) Chan was also sort of his own parody anyway. They do get better as they go along, dropping off the fart jokes and accidental headbutts for cleverer moments, like Charlie beating a kidnapper over the head with bad pseudo-Chinese aphorisms until the culprit is thrilled to be arrested, but Demmans seems talented enough to be putting his talents to better and more challenging use than this.

So it turns out there are two Jeff Smiths. One's the famed creator of BONE, and one's behind COMPLEX CITY:ALL IN A DAY'S WORK (Better Comics, Box 541924, Dallas TX 75354-1924; $12.95), though he's now working as J.E. Smith. It's a futuristic/semi-magical burg where a hardboiled 6' bulldog in a trenchcoat keeps the law. It's got demons who hire out as guards, vampires, cyborg robots, talking apes and its own resident urban legend superhero. And it's well done. But stuff like this is starting to all blur together for me. This "put every comics gimmick together in a blender let's have fun it's just comics" type of comic must be easy to do, because enough people seem driven to do them. Don't get me wrong, COMPLEX CITY is heads and tails above most of them, but, I dunno, I think I've had about all the fun I can take.

Continuing its ongoing love affair with comics (and shouldn't somebody be having one, after all?) ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY , in its 4-4-03 issue, has a new comic strip by Harvey Pekar and Gary Dumm (of AMERICAN SPLENDOR fame, for those who've been living with the Unabomber since 1980) reflecting on the classic film THE BICYCLE THIEF. It's in the film section and the strip's actual title is "Harvey Pekar's Lost And Found," so it smacks of an ongoing feature to me... They should let Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson review DVDs...

One of my favorite Hong Kong actors, Leslie Cheung, died at age 46 on Tuesday by throwing himself off a hotel. He reportedly left a suicide note, and friends said he was having emotional problems. I guess.

Ever feel like a project was cursed? For months I've been mentioning the "Lockheed The Dragon" story Paul Smith and I did for Marvel's X-MEN UNLIMITED anthology, and finally it came out last week. I thought. Turns out, according to the note editor C.B Cebulski sent last Thursday, the artist on one of the stories (not ours; Paul was done months ago, and, if I haven't mentioned it before, the job looks bloody great) needed more time so Marvel opted to give it to him, and X-MEN UNLIMITED #43 is postponed until mid-April. Well, it's only a couple more weeks, right?

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.

My old personal webpage - the one with all the information - has finally vanished, and it's about time, since I left that server almost a year ago. The new one isn't up yet, but keep watching this space for details.

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