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Issue #85

At times like these, there's only one thing really on my mind:

What do I want for Xmas?

I know it's not even May yet. So what? I'm to the age when the things I want cost more than other people are willing to spend on me. So if I want, say, one of those new Compaq laptops with an Athlon Mobile-2200 CPU, 512 megs DDR memory, a 60 gig hard drive, a 15" TFT screen, ATI Radeon graphics, a DVD/CDRW combo drive, and USB 2, it's pretty much up to me, and that takes long term planning (a mere $1500). As far as comics stuff goes, we're already cutting it close, because last year what I would've wanted more than anything else – what everyone should go buy right this instant – was Greg Sadowski's B. KRIGSTEIN, one of the best books on comics art and culture ever written, as well as a great exegesis of a truly inspired and widely overlooked comics creator.

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This year, or in 2004, I want THE COMPLETE GEORGE METZGER.

No doubt most of you are scratching your heads right now. George has pretty much been absent from the comics scene since he migrated to British Columbia a couple decades back (he recently surfaced in a case involving Canadian Customs refusing to allow a shipment of comics to him into that country), and even while he was active he wasn't that pronounced. He certainly was never as well known as the underground cartoonists whose work most of his traveled alongside of, like Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Jaxon, Gilbert Shelton, or even some who've stayed in the business to some extent, like Spain Rodriguez and Trina Robbins. But Metzger, aside from being a terrific writer/cartoonist, was the intersection between comics fandom, sf fandom and underground comics, with his earliest work appearing in fanzines like Bill Spicer's FANTASY ILLUSTRATED/GRAPHIC STORY MAGAZINE, which is still the single best publication about comics ever done. Metzger experimented early on with content and layout, shattering traditional layout in ways few had ever tried before and which laid the groundwork for work done since. He's another talent who broadened perceptions of what could be accomplished in comics, and, like many influential talents, his influence crept into the mainstream in stages, with many who were influenced unaware of the original inspiration. Which is why so few people have ever heard of George Metzger.

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Metzger's material ranged all over the board: from the hippie-tinged post-apocalyptic world of his interlocking series MOONDOG, KALEIDASMITH and PANOPLY MIND (which anticipated the MAD MAX movies by a considerable margin) to experimental work like MAL-IG and his early MASTER TYME AND MOBIUS TRIPP to Philip K. Dick-esque meditations on the shifting nature of reality, autobiographical and humorous "real world" stories, and even one of the first graphic novels, 1976's BEYOND TIME AND AGAIN. I met Metzger once, briefly, at the '78 San Diego Comic-Con – great guy – and even then he was looking to arrange for a book collection of his work. But I think he smelled the writing on the Marvel wall, because the budding direct sales market was already angling toward pushing Marvel uber alles and soon afterward Metzger dropped out of comics, moved to Canada, and no book ever materialized.

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But Metzger's really just the tip of the iceberg. I wonder what kind of business we'd have today if the work of that era – and some of the better work since – had gotten as much exposure as even, oh, DEATHLOK. Where are the collections of Jaxon's brilliant historical western material? Of Matt Howarth's brilliant THOSE ANNOYING POST BROTHERS and related stories? Or the underground work of Richard Corben (much of it written by Bruce Jones or Jan Strnad)? Or Rand Holmes? Tom Veitch and Greg Irons? What about Trina Robbins? Where is all this work, and why isn't anyone keeping it in print? Why is so much powerful and greatly inventive comics work so distressingly forgotten or ignored? Certainly there must be some enterprising publisher who can secure (I doubt it'd take much if any money up front) and market it. I know books for Xmas 2003 should already be in the planning stage, but Xmas 2004 would be great too.

In one regard, the record industry may have a point. Music "bootlegging" probably does discourage a lot of sales to people who might've bought the records had advance listening not warned them what atrocious crud the product was before money changed hands. (This syndrome is precisely why movie companies don't show some films to reviewers in advance of release, and why probably many more films should get the same treatment.) To get a sense of the straits the music industry's in, check out the Billboard charts for the last week, topped by the debut album from the first AMERICAN IDOL winner, Kelly Clarkson. For 297,000 albums sold.

Okay, 297,000's nothing to sneeze at. It's sure no comic has sold that many in its first week in a long time. But it's a truism in the recording business as well as the comics business that the majority of your sales come in the first week of release, and Kelly Clarkson is arguably the most hyped music personality in years. We're talking about a woman who won a contest where 20 million votes were cast every week. Even given some of those votes came from people voting more than once, that's a huge, huge audience that decided Clarkson was the best new singer in America. So if the #1 album in America sells, oh, 300,000 copies to a theoretically potential audience of millions, that's not quite as impressive as it initially sounds. And figuring the #2 album doesn't come anywhere near the #1 album, and #5 doesn't come anywhere near #2... (Hard to tell since Billboard doesn't list sales figures, only chart position.) By comparison, the new Fleetwood Mac album and the new Jimmy Buffett collection, both aimed at the boomer audience, debuted at #4 and #9 respectively.

As in comics, the diffusion of a mass audience is probably due to a combination of stratifying tastes and a rejection of the pablum the industry periodically tries to reinforce. (Face it, there's not a huge range between Shirley Temple singing "The Good Ship Lollipop" and Britney Spears shilling Pepsi.) But even in the Billboard charts, which aren't famed for their diversity, there are a lot of musical styles represented, with nothing showing any particular dominance. This is good for the audience and performers – it suggests there are available niches for everyone – but bad for the cultural capitalists who make up the recording industry and keep the faith that a mass audience exists, specifically a mass audience for sheer crap.

Speaking of sheer crap, I pity the poor fool who sat through the entire HELEN OF TROY, USA Network's soporific retelling of THE ILIAD, with Sienna Guillory playing Helen as the vapid Greek equivalent of a Valley Girl, Joe Montana playing Greek superhero Achilles with all the aplomb of a pitchman for widescreen TVs, and otherwise decent actor Rufus Sewell desperately chewing the scenery just to stay afloat. It scored big points with me by bringing the greatest character of Greek mythology, the doomed Cassandra, into the action immediately, then pissed away any goodwill by trying to suggest Guillory's Helen, a pretty but unarresting airhead, had a face that would launch a bathtub float, let alone a thousand ships. I meant to watch the whole thing, honest I did, but at the point where a couple of thugs spirit off Helen, a princess, right in front of the armies of Mycenea and Sparta and nobody reacts in the slightest, I had to quit. My head hurt too much. Since I had it on tape, I did spot check the rest to see if it got any better, or more believable. It didn't. HELEN OF TROY amounted to the worst episode of XENA ever.

Lately, struggling to find anything on TV worth watching, I've been catching up on BBC America's WAKING THE DEAD (9PM Monday). It amounts to a British CSI, with a crack team of investigators taking on cold cases other agencies have given up on. (They've got their own in-house forensics expert, ala CSI; at least one network is developing what's tantamount to an American version for next season.) Starring Trevor Eve, it's not bad. The characters are winsome, the vague continuing storylines creek with conspiracy and the mysteries are as intriguing as any cop show. But you get the feeling watching it that this is what the BBC considers "edgy," the same way you can tell FASTLANE is what Fox TV considers "edgy." Unlike such series as TOUCHING EVIL (about a cop haunted by blood, death and failure while tracking down monstrous criminals) or SECOND SIGHT (a Clive Owen vehicle about a detective trying to keep his progressing blindness secret), WAKING THE DEAD is just a bit too polite, populated by basically pleasant, slightly homely middle class types putting the stick to the upper classes in the course of their duties. Its demons are all external, not internal, without any real suggestion of danger. Ultimately, the series has more in common with the Lord Peter Whimsey style of mystery, at that same sure and measured BBC pace. Which isn't to say it's not entertaining enough TV – I'd rather watch WAKING THE DEAD than FEAR FACTOR or EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND – but there are limits to how satisfying purely intellectual puzzles and fairly well-adjusted, nicely dressed people can be.

Of course, Iraq is Islamic and America (the Republicans delight in telling us, and the Democrats often hop on the bandwagon as well) is Christian, so I guess the message is Islam is an evil religion that will only taint education while Christianity is a pure and noble religion that can only redeem it. We can be certain of this because the Hand Puppet's good friend and spiritual advisor, Billy Graham's spawn (and Pat Robertson wannabe) Franklin Graham, has officially pronounced that Islam is a "very evil and wicked" faith. Graham's busily out to bring democracy to Iraq as well, mounting an initiative to bring The True Faith there and win converts in the wake of our marching armies. (His operation Samaritan's Purse is said to trade needed supplies for conversions, with funding courtesy of the Hand Puppet's "Faith Based Initiative.")

What's fun is listening to Christian Fundamentalists talk about Muslim Fundamentalists as though there were a fundamental difference between them. They both preach intolerance and violence, demand unquestioning acceptance of their own version of "the word of God" as though it wasn't interpreted by somebody but instead ushered forth from the lips of the Almighty himself, and reject science and learning, particularly if it contradicts their viewpoint. (I've actually heard fundamentalist Christians pronounce Christian Fundamentalism the only true defense against Islamic Fundamentalism; as far as I'm concerned, choosing between them is like deciding whether you'd rather be pillaged and raped by Goths or Visigoths.) Replacing one fundamentalism with another in Iraq is no road to peace or security, particularly since much of the rest of the Muslim world is already convinced the US action is part of the "crusade" (with its overtly religious overtones, in Muslim culture) announced by the Hand Puppet in the aftermath of 9-11. If Graham starts really pumping his "mission" in Iraq, it's highly likely to spur exactly the "Jihad" he frequently rants against, which is probably exactly what he wants. (This is along the lines of Pat Robertson, who used to vilify Jews as anti-Christian, now making alliances with American Judaism and seeking a "strong Israel" not because he wants a lasting Jewish nation but because without Armageddon in the Middle East, biblical prophecy can't be fulfilled and Christ will not return.) Graham's known to having the President's ear, and the Hand Puppet's "Faith-Based Initiative" is set to pay for the proselytizing with our taxes.

So what is the Iraq we plan to "return" to the Iraqi people? One they get to decide on (and, if that's the case, which Iraqi people are we talking about?) or one we'll try to remake in our own image before we hand it to them? In an Iraq filled with Muslim sects historically less than tolerant of each other, all of which nurse old grudges and none of which seem particularly inclined to share power, how do we instigate a secular democracy without leaving American troops in place (as in Afghanistan) to physically enforce it, and is a democracy enforced on people who don't want it a democracy? Or do we end up with a "Vietnamese democracy" where a minority (in this case, the Sunnis) is kept in power by our presence and "free elections"? As Phil Ochs once put it, are we out to find them a leader that they can elect?

I honestly don't see this book convincing anyone of anything. For one thing, it opens with word balloons all over the place. It's not that it's so difficult to keep track of – though it's not all that easy either – but it immediately suggests more work than it's worth. Seeking the shatter the stereotype of comics that many people have, they break the anti-comics audience down into four groups: young girls who've never read comics; young guys who think comics are beneath them; old guys who used to read comics but now think they're beneath them; and grown-up women who've never read comics. Okay, there are five philosophical problems with this approach. 1) Murphy and Dalrymple resort to stereotyping the audiences they're trying to convert (including considerable presumption about what material is suited to those audiences). 2) The examples they give of material that's supposedly suited to those brackets is generally presented in such shorthand (due to space considerations) that they come off looking like shallow stereotypes of the select genres. 3) While they point out that varying material in comics exists, they don't really give any clues as to what those books are or where to find them, meaning prospective audiences are left to slog through mountains of mutants and capes to dig up the material, which again constitutes too much work. 4) The "narrators" (the eponymous Christa and her little sister) are such in your face brats, flaunting a "only a total idiot wouldn't read comics" attitude that I can't see being anything other than a turn-off (it's like being lectured by some latter day teenage hippie in the supermarket for buying chicken). 5) If you're going to try to get people who don't read comics to read comics, you have to do it with really, really good comics. Which CHRISTA isn't. It's okay, though. It's a good idea that just needed to be thought through a little more. The irony is that only real comics fans will love it.

Is it time for another TOO MUCH COFFEE MAN (Adhesive Press, Box 14549, Portland OR 97293; $4.95) already? For those who've never read it, this is a magazine (look for it in your local bookstore, and if they don't carry it, harangue someone) with lots of coffee discussion, irreverent political humor and social commentary, reviews, an interview with (love him or hate him) Ted Rall, and lots of alt comic strips by Shannon Wheeler, Bill Plymptom, Michael Jantze, Keith Knight, John Backdorf, Craig Thompson, Douglas Paszkiewicz, Sam Tannen, Victor Vasquez, Scott Mills, Rick Geary, Sam Hurt, Erik Bezdek, Matt Feazell, David Bort, Steve Cloud and (whew!) Bobo. It's cranky, it's smart, and it'll teach you all about pirate radio. So go buy it.

I feel like Forrest Gump when I open a mini-comic: I never know what I'm going to get. Mike McGhee offers a little untitled one that creepily and unexpectedly blends a child's-eye mythology with more adult and repellent fantasies. It's a good job, the poetics of the story more than making up for the relatively crude (but still fairly pleasing) art. CROSSING TOWN is a second mini from McGhee, adapted from an African folktale into a modern setting. It's longer but somehow less personal. Cute, though. Finally, there's SEQUENCE MAGAZINE, an alt-comics zine apparently out Vassar College (it's open to contributors if you're interested), sports a collage cover by McGhee, as well as 16 strips of varying quality and interest by beginning cartoonists, and an essay on David Mack's KABUKI. Whodathunk Vassar'd be such a hotbed of comics creativity? Is this a standard on campuses now? None of it's terribly polished, but there's far more intelligence and energy than in the average comics anthology. (I particularly liked Will Fain's minimalist, introspective "Vassar.") It's worth a look.

And just as I was closing up shop, someone sent me a stack of REX MUNDI, which I dug in the #0 edition and in its COMICS INTERNATIONAL version, so look for that next week...

A couple corrections from last week:

The link I gave for the Tothfans site, while it still works, is no longer correct. The newer proprietary link is here. And a big thumbs up to Jeff Rose and David Cook for running such a great site.

For those who found the sound of James Woodward's THESE THINGS HAPPEN interesting, it turns out I had contact info after all – just not in the comics. The cover letter went walkabout (the curse of a demon-possessed office), and it turns out THESE THINGS HAPPEN is running online at Unbound Comics.

Turns out my pal Dallas Middaugh left his marketing director job at Viz to found Redshift, a company dedicated to promoting graphic novels and animation. Right now he's helping move Slave Labor Graphics and Oni Press product in bookstores. Interesting concept, can't wait to see if it pans out or not. Good luck with it, Dallas.

And don't forget, even as you're standing in line for the opening of X-MEN 2 on Friday, than Saturday is Free Comics Day. Support your local comics shop, and drop in to say hi and see what other goodies (free stuff and guest stars) might be waiting for you. As I've mentioned, if you drop into Ralph Mathieu's Alternate Reality Comics (4800 Maryland Pkwy #D, Las Vegas NV 89119, across from the University Of Nevada-Las Vegas campus and just north of Tropicana Blvd, right down the road from the fabulous Strip) from around 11 AM – 2 PM, we'll be giving away Avatar's Frank Miller's ROBOCOP 2 preview, I'll be talking Robocop and other things, and who knows what'll happen and who else'll be there. Hopefully you.

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.

Those wanting to subscribe to the WHISPER e-mail newsletter should click here.

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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