Issue #86

But the big question of the day last Saturday was: had I seen X2 yet? Answer: no. Probably won't until I can borrow the DVD from the library or it shows up on HBO, like SPIDER-MAN just did last Saturday. I know it's egotistical, but in the proper scheme of things is Marvel gives me money, I don't give Marvel money, and I don't see any reason to change that. Of course, if Bill or Joe or anyone at Sony wants to send me a pass, I'll be happy to see it, and write it up. (Though, given an $85 mil weekend, it's not like the film needs my help.)

X2 did prompt an interesting e-mail, though:

"I just saw the new X-MEN flick and thought it was awesome. I've been following the cartoon series on Fox since childhood, but never got around to the comic books. After seeing the new movie I figured I'd like to. But i don't know where to begin. Could you tell me anything about where to start (you know, which issues, volumes, etc.), so I can get more wrapped up in the X-men saga? It's a really great story and i can't wait to read more about it."

Which left me a bit puzzled. Not about him wanting to delve further into X-Men – that's fine, and it's what the movie's supposed to accomplish, after all – but about how to answer his question. I can't think of a more convoluted morass of interwoven/suspended plots coming from all directions than X-saga, compiled from, what? Two, three hundred long and short term titles now? My quickie answer was this:

"I haven't really been following X-output these days, but I'd suggest a) get the issues of NEW X-MEN written by Grant Morrison over the past couple of years. Those are probably your best bet for getting a grip on the current material. (These may be out in trade paperback, I'm not sure.) And b) trade paperback collections of old stories or graphic novels. As said, I really haven't been paying attention to Marvel's output on these things, so I'm not sure what's available, but they'd probably have lists at Marvel's website. Or you could hit your local comics shop's quarter bin, dive in, and swim for the surface. (I'm presuming you're not willing to pay the prices for the original Claremont-Cockrum/Byrne/Paul Smith/John Romita Jr. runs, which would be your best "old school" bet. Morrison's your best "new school" bet.)

Good luck with it."

Which got me wondering. What is currently available from Marvel?

A quick search of their website turned up the following: a couple volumes of the recent CABLE series. A volume of the original X-MEN material by Stan, Jack, Roy Thomas and Werner Roth. Three collections of the WOLVERINE comic. Four volumes of the original Chris Claremont run on the book, with all the artists I named above. Four volumes of the recent EXILES series. Two more collections of the early Stan/Jack UNCANNY X-MEN. Four NEW X-MEN collections. Six ULTIMATE X-MEN collections. Three collections of recent UNCANNY X-MEN. Barry Windsor-Smith's WEAPON X. Eight WOLVERINE collections, including the original Claremont/Miller mini-series. An X-FACTOR collection. Three X-FORCE collections. X-MEN LEGENDS. X-MEN VISIONARIES. X-STATIC. A couple original graphic novels. Five X-TREME X-MEN books. And the adaptation of the second movie.

Phew. Some list.

I pity the poor moviegoer who tries to make sense of it all.

Not that it's Marvel's fault exactly, certainly not the current administration's, but I have to wonder just how many of the 61 collections currently available have complete stories in them. No dangling plot threads, no unresolved character arcs. The sorts of things that, barring the odd STAR WARS serial or multi-part LORD OF THE RINGS adaptation, moviegoers tend to expect from their fiction. (Or even book readers.) When Chris took the X-helm back when sales were still shaky and the concept's future was far from assured (remember this was after the cancellation of the original series and a several year layoff, during which there were only reprints of earlier material, and X-MEN wasn't anything even remotely resembling a magic word in the marketplace) he kicked Marvel's underlying soap opera formula into high gear and carpeted bombed the audience with a mushrooming cast of characters and rapid fire plot shifts – and that was absolutely the right move for the time. With John Byrne's art, it put the book on the map. Unfortunately, over time and in hands less capable than Chris', it became codified into a rigid style that infected many titles at Marvel and other companies, accruing such detritus that the style and the books it generates are likewise nearly impenetrable. Which was not the case with the early Claremont/Byrne material – probably due to John's very clear storytelling, the work remains accessible to this day – and which, I presume, was the point behind Grant Morrison's NEW X-MEN.

Rumor (vastly overstated, as far as I can tell) has it that the most recent regime change at Marvel came about due to the then-company's failure to capitalize on the success of the first X-MEN movie. To what extent has the current regime managed to capitalize on X2? How have they made it easier for casual moviegoers who've become interested in the concept to the point they want to read the comics to step in? Anyone have any insights? (I'm not saying they haven't. I don't know, and I'm open to arguments either way.) To what extent does the currently available X-MEN product allow easy access to the uninitiated, and what books would you recommend to someone who'd seen the movie(s) and now wants to start on the comics but doesn't know where to begin?

But it seems to me that at some point the business has to stop making assumptions and put some serious thought into things like this, if it's really interested in growing a new audience.

In fact, Vince's decline oddly matches the comics industry's decline. For one thing, when it started and now, the big players in the business – those who had their own positions to protect – started poo-pooing the idea that anything was wrong or that anything needed to be done about it; it was all part of the cyclical nature of the business, they said. Sound familiar? Their answer to the problem: keep doing the same thing you've always been doing and business will eventually turn around. They've been saying this the whole time it's been going deeper and deeper into the dumper, with no end in sight. The group's programming has become more scattershot and unstructured, with any sort of story logic (yeah, yeah, I know; trust me, you may not care for the stories, but in good wrestling there's story logic) flushed for shock effect, or to protect "franchises" no longer able to stand on their own two feet (sometimes literally). The WWE has put increasing effort into trying to outwit the few hardcore fans (known in the biz as "smarks" – smart marks, "mark" being an old carny term for "sucker") who follow the background ins and outs of the business instead of developing material that will put seats in the seats. With the superstars of the 90s pretty much gone – Stone Cold Steve Austin is so injured he can't safely wrestle anymore, while The Rock is mostly off pursuing a so far successful Hollywood career – the WWE has seemingly forgotten how to create new stars, stupidly undercutting newer players to keep the older players going, and trying to boost interest by bringing back the superstars of yesterday, like Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, Shawn Michaels and Kevin Nash, and, for the most part, pushing them so desperately as to expose their weaknesses and kill whatever potential strengths they may have had, mostly by trying to shove them into positions they held long ago that they can no longer credibly hold, and trying to make it look like they can credibly hold those positions just make the younger wrestlers, the ones the company ultimately needs to most to survive and prosper for another generation, look even worse. It's not uncommon for the WWE to do a hard build on a new or undercard wrestler just to have some over-the-hill "superstar" bury him two weeks later, giving the message that the new guy is not now nor will he ever be a threat, and we can comfortably stick with what we know. Everything in WWE now is schizophrenically geared toward shock and reassuring familiarity – and the viewers are staying home and switching channels in droves.

Meanwhile, lots of little promotions (WWE absorbed its main rival, World Championship Wrestling, a couple years back and proceeded to clumsily bury what should've been a hot feud by egotistically clinging to the longstanding propaganda that any WWE wrestler is automatically superior to any non-WWE wrestler, and when your stumblebums can beat their champions, where's the interesting part?) have sprung up all around the country, like independent publishers have sprung up in comics, and with about as much overall success. Many of them are marginally successful in their own niche, but none of them stand much chance of growing into any real competition.

In short, there doesn't seem to be any real energy in wrestling right now, nor any plan in the WWE; decisions are made on the basis of what's likely to pop the biggest rating next Monday night, with no thought of the Monday after that or the Monday after that. The problem, of course, is that until people watch the Monday show they don't have any idea what the "shocking surprise" will be and by the time they find out the show will be over, the ratings won't pop, and panic ensues for another week. Besides, as I wrote about comics ages ago, there's only so much shock you can hurl at people before they don't get excited by anything. There's no foundation in the WWE anymore; it's all shifting sands, reacting violently to the slightest tremor. Everyone there seems tired and frustrated, and so is the rapidly-declining audience.

Which, again, sounds terribly familiar...

Nah, Bill Bennett's sideshow, much as he always was. Even Iraq's kind of sideshow this week, since essentially nothing there has changed, despite a shift of U.S. management of the country: the Hand Puppet still prattles on about bringing "true democracy" to Iraq while Rumsfeld continues swearing the Shi'ite majority will not be allowed to hold significant power, VP Cheney's corporate clients continue to scoop up government contracts for "rebuilding" Iraq, and Iraqi scientists are unable to lead the U.S. to any "weapons of mass destruction" while international observers continue to ask where they are and at home the administration continues to insist that a) our mission in Iraq was about democracy, not "weapons of mass destruction," and b) we will find them. (I'm waiting for the inevitable WEEKLY WORLD NEWS headline about how the tornadoes ravaging Middle America this week are actually Saddam's revenge, using secret weather-controlling "weapons of mass destruction" that were his true objective all along. (They've run similar stories in the past, and they've never been above repeating a story, with marginal changes, if the time's right.)

The real political story of the week is one that's been popping up for a couple years now, no matter how many times the administration tries to squelch it: who knew what prior to 9-11? Sure, that still rings of "conspiracy theory," the catch-all phrase universally used across the political spectrum these days to dismiss topics particular people don't want to talk about, and this particular topic inevitably rouses a shrill, disdainful "are you suggesting they let it happen?" from right-thinking Americans everywhere, even though that's not really the question or the issue (at least not yet). But even Republicans I know who dismiss "conspiracy theory" still bring up Vince Foster, the Clinton confidante who killed himself on a Washington park bench (or did he? Cue discordant music!) so, like most everything else in politics, it's not really a matter of whether or not you believe in "conspiracy theory," but which "conspiracies" you believe in.

And whether or not there was a "conspiracy" to "allow" 9-11, there has without question been an organized effort by the administration to keep information about who inside the administration knew what when bottled up and out of the public eye, at least until after November 2004 (and I think until after January 2009 or longer is more the true goal). Most recently, as reported by renowned anti-Clinton hatchet man Michael Isikoff and his partner Mark Hosenball at MSNBC, the White House sunk a bipartisan Congressional report on the matter. An extremely short summary of the report was released in December, but the White House staffers "reviewing" the report have claimed most of the report's conclusions fall under the heading of "national security" and must not be revealed.

We can dismiss co-sponsor Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla) as politically opportunistic, of course, since he's running for President (he announced this morning, with a speech that chastised the Hand Puppet for turning his sights away from issues of American security to foreign wars, and pretty much dropping our guard for us). But we can presumably take the statements of Hand Puppet supporter Representative Porter Goss (R-Fla), a former CIA operative who sees nothing in the report compromising "national security" – most of the information came from public testimony before Congress, and even then the Administration refused to send big players like Rumsfeld or Powell to testify – and doesn't understand why the White House would turn around and classify it. According to Isikoff & Hosenball, much of the material, like FBI memos that the press already made much hay of, were "reclassified" to make the report's release impossible.

Since much of the information is already available, though scattered and in dribs and drabs, it can be assumed what they're most afraid of is having it all coalesced into one place where outrage can be heaped on outrage until everyone's, well, outraged. Remember the outside commission assigned to do a Warren Report on the attacks, the one Henry Kissinger briefly headed? The White House put that one together – and it's refusing to release information to it. (The Hand Puppet claims the right to withhold any information he chooses, though his mandate to the group was to root through all information until the truth was found.)

So the logical question – you can call it conspiracy theory if you like – is "what are they hiding?" Isikoff (as I've mentioned, hardly a friend to Democrats) & Hosenball's sources suggest they're hiding quite a bit. The next Republican convention will be unusually late, in early September of next year, to give the Hand Puppet rough sync with the 9-11 anniversary for his campaign push-off; it would hardly due to have it widely reported that he received a CIA briefing in July 2001 predicting a spectacular Bin Laden-planned massive strike against American cities with the intent of mass casualities, and he didn't think it was worth trying to do anything about it. Among the things known in the report is that National Security Advisor Condaleeza Rice received a briefing in August about how Al Qaeda planned to hijack airplanes – and nothing was done about it.

Yeah, yeah, I know: old news. The bits and pieces are old news. The pattern when all the bits and pieces, and the conclusions to be drawn thereof, might not be. If the White House has its way, we'll never know. Before another election season passes, it's only right that we have four questions answered: Who knew what when? If they did know beforehand, why was nothing done about it? Was it just sloppiness, or was there something else going on? And why doesn't the White House want the American public to hear any of this?

Feel free to howl "conspiracy theory!" now...

You don't have to have a big take, but it has to be a new take, and that's something I don't see in a lot of superhero comics. It's what made Warren's version of THE AUTHORITY so impressive; the lack of it's what makes the latest version so depressing.

What makes that situation at Image depressing is that the company publishes some good, original books these days. Take Eric Johnson and Arvid Nelson's REX MUNDI #1-3 ($2.95@), set in a parallel interwar Paris where magic is real and the Catholic Church (in the form of the Inquisition) does battle with various sorcerers and demons. There are obviously other differences (what should be the USA is the Federal Republic Of America, and the Confederate States, which says something about American history), so it's one of those projects that benefits from being set almost in the real world. Dr. Julien Saunière, a liberally minded doctor, is tracking down a lost scroll for a priest when he comes across a ritually murdered woman, sending him toward a confrontation with both dark forces and the Church, with geopolitics playing a greater role as the story progresses. Unlike many "magic" books, Nelson and Johnson keep things fixed on human beings and their problems, disappointments, desires and lusts, anchoring it; in that regard, REX MUNDI is a crime story in drag. This is a strong, imaginative series, with great pacing and plotting, intelligent writing and characterization, some attractive Perez-by-way-of-HELLBLAZER art and excellent coloring by the invaluable Jeremy Cox, permeated by a constant tone of mystery and threat. Aside from all the characters sounding a bit too modern American, I find absolutely nothing to dislike about REX MUNDI. Why isn't everyone buying it?

Okay, he's a friend of mine so you can claim bias if you like, but I think Jonathan Vankin has a future in this business. His second Vertigo offering, VERTIGO POP: BANGKOK ($2.95), has its first issue out now, and it's a fairly cool little crime story, as an American girl with a chip on her shoulder and her low rent actor boyfriend who are recruited by a couple of reprobates to smuggle a young hooker out of the country. Adults only, of course. Vankin's got a good ear for tight, sparse dialogue that never sounds forced, and the art by Guiseppe Camuncoli and Shawn Martinbrough is equally effective. Good hook ending, too; can't wait to see the rest of it.

I'm not really sure what Sebastian Mesa and Albert Nguyen's THE PAINTED WAR (Decadent Press, 2455 Brockview Dr, Maplewood MN 55119; $2 w/SASE, $2.50 w/o) is supposed to be about. The first issue is basically one long fight scene in a fast food shop between rival gangs for no apparent reason. Nguyen and Mesa are obviously newcomers and need a little storytelling practice, but the art, while a touch rudimentary, isn't bad. The story, though, needed much more context, though to the extent the characterizations came through they were fairly interesting. No indication if the story's intended to continue. Not a bad first effort, but I'd like to see what Mesa and Nguyen can do with a little more practice.

I can't review SKUMM: Super Kinetic Ultra Magnetic Men (Digital Webbing, 31 Westford St, Haverhill MA 01832; $2.95) because I was a consultant on the book, but I can say a) it's a future-action series about genetically-enhanced extreme sports stars caught in a web of murder and deceit, b) it's drawn by Deon Nuckols and Serge LaPointe with covers by Nuckols and by Kaare Andrews, c) it's full color and d) it's available now. Big action.

Just to be even more incestuous, check out my interview re: Frank Miller's ROBOCOP 2, elsewhere on Comic Book Resources. Should be one coming up at Newsarama in the not too distant future as well. Check out Avatar's site for more details. And don't forget to mention it to your dealer when you hit the comics shop this week; get those orders in. Thanks.

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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