Issue #88

1) As the main audience for graphic novels in libraries is teenagers, it means teenagers are neither averse to reading comics nor do they feel they have better things to do with their time, like play video games.

2) The rising interest in graphic novels and the corresponding continuing decline in interest in "pamphlets," as the standard comics form has come to be called, indicates the necessary evolution of the medium. In other words, maybe it's time we toss our crutch aside.

Of course, in the short run that creates either a huge financial strain on publishers underwriting the creation of long works or a burden on talent who have to underwrite themselves and make their money on the back end (which seems to be the model most publisher – naturally – prefer). Even Marvel and DC have effectively admitted the "graphic novel" is the main goal of their pamphlet publishing these days: getting enough material together to get out those GREEN ARROW and DAREDEVIL collections. (Both at my local libraries. By the way, here in Las Vegas we have two library systems available, which is why I refer to them in the plural.)

As I've said before, a shift to graphic novel format's going to cause a drastic shift in what gets released in comics form as well. For one thing, just because it's going to be a lot more expensive to put out a book, publishers will be choosier about what they produce. (This has already come into effect as a result of declining profitability of pamphlets.) I think, reading what passes for most graphic novels these days (and it really doesn't matter whether we're talking originals or collections), works will increasingly need to be more complex (though not necessarily in obvious ways) and structurally geared for the new format rather than the old one. The continuing availability of old material in graphic novel form will be both blessing and curse, as much of the material done today – particularly in superhero comics – references older material that new audiences once had no access to, and that's changing, so new material will have to stop depending so much on "homage" and require more real imagination. (I'm not arguing for killing superhero comics here, just saying superhero comics will have to be better, and fresher.) That's a small price to pay (really, we should've paid it years ago, without graphic novels as a stimulus) for the benefit of rescuing obscure great material from limbo. Many publishers are still using pamphlet sales as a litmus test for graphic novel sales, but they're two different beasts.

At any rate, I've been using the libraries to catch up on a lot of material, like the CrossGen collections (liked THE PATH, but I suspect most of their other books work better as individual issues, since collectively they have a bad tendency to never really get anywhere; there's such a thing as having too epic a scope). It's particularly to have the chance to revisit certain works.

THE SPIRIT ARCHIVES (DC Comics, $49.95) reprints the first six months of Will Eisner's THE SPIRIT, the weekly newspaper insert widely considered the most influential series of all time. I read these strips decades ago when they were reissued in half-size black and white form, and, trust me, it's better to see them big and in color. The real creative periods of the strip were from mid-1941 (this volume covers 1940) to Eisner's '42 recruitment into the army, and the '47-'51 stint after service when Eisner was joined by the likes of Jules Feiffer, Jerry Grandinetti and Wally Wood. Much of this volume's interesting for its development more than anything else; like most comics stories of the time, they're short, brisk and largely uncomplicated, with largely perfunctory and often stilted dialogue. That's not a complaint; the material's still largely above the standard of the time, and everyone's got to start somewhere. The Spirit slowly coalesces into familiar form: the mask only appears with the second episode, the gloves later, the earliest stories give The Spirit an affinity for guns that he quickly loses, and the hero goes through a strange array of excessively convenient gadgets, from a flying car to special shoes that allow him to walk up the sides of bridges. The early stories take place in New York City instead of the eventual fictional locale of Central City. Then there are the character clichés and stereotypes – particularly the horrendous caricature of Ebony, the Spirit's (eventual) assistant who starts out as a trembling, bucktoothed trembling Stepin Fetchit stand-in. But, by the end of 1940, there are already signs of Eisner chafing to work his raw material into something else. Ebony starts to take on a real character, showing intelligence and courage; the gadgets fade and the stories become less "superhero" and more tongue-in-cheek; the action becomes both more down-to-earth and more choreographed and slapstick. By the end of the year, Eisner's hallmarks begin to show, with stories that become moral fables more complex than the simple "he's good, he's bad" rationales of the earlier stories, and stories that barely even feature the Spirit at all. (Women fare worse in early Eisner, though, with perennial love interest Ellen Dolan being little more than a flighty, obnoxious love-stricken twit, the exact type Eisner would parody with the character Saree in the late '40s, and the Spirit's first femme fatale opponent, the Black Queen, has an inexplicable character arc, going from her original appearance as a defense attorney to the mastermind of a superheist to a costumed supervillainess.) If I didn't know what comes later, I'm not sure I'd be all that impressed, but, knowing, it's like watching a chick peck its way out of an egg, and when, now, do we get the chance to watch a great idea actually coalesce before our eyes?

There's the same sense with PROMETHEA by Alan Moore, JH Williams III and Mick Gray (Wildstorm; $24.95@ in hardcover). Reading PROMETHEA in pamphlets I was never that intrigued by it; it seemed precious and overwrought, struggling against the requirements of the superhero genre while obviously wanting to go somewhere else, which was clearly the plan all along. That somewhere else was basically Alan's grimoire of magical reality, which, stretched across a seeming infinity of pamphlets, got pretty tiresome. But the collected story produces a real shock of the new, like Alan's original SWAMP THING breakout, "The Anatomy Lesson," did. This is a faux superhero comic, with the superheroics little more than a come-on for the exegesis of Moore's mystical system (one could say "new religion"), but it's also a great character study, with underlying observations about the human condition that usually don't show up in superhero comics. It's definitely a superhero comic, though, continuing observations on the genre Moore began with WATCHMEN and MARVELMAN but reconstituting them with some exceptional scholarship as an evolutionary force and playing up the metafiction of a fictitious character uncovering the essentially fictitious (but no less real) nature of reality, and trying to go past superheroes, fiction and reality altogether. It's one of the few truly ambitious works in modern comics, and Williams/Gray should get some sort of special award for so intricately and completely merging story and art, just a phenomenal job, changing to meet the particular challenges of each story section. As a monthly comic, PROMETHEA's an exhausting diversion. Compiled, it's a stunning achievement. (I should mention one of the big problems of superhero comics in general is that they never really end, but PROMETHEA always feels like there's an end just out of sight.)

I hadn't read Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN (DC Comics, $29.95), but I can't recall any major project in recent memory that was more ripped on by readers. Now I've read it, and guess what? They're wrong. It's brilliant, both a paean to particularly the Julius Schwartz era of DC superheroes and a meditation on the underlying (and resolutely unadmitted) nature of those characters, something I remember discussing with Frank over 20 years ago. These are the comics still worshipped by way too many people (loving them is fine, demanding they be the model for everything else is counterproductive and way over the top). When THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS came out, many people praised it as the "resurrection" of Batman when, in fact, it was no such thing. It was, as the story itself declared, the culmination of Batman, the burning out of the last possibilities inherent in the concept. That it was a strong enough presentation to buttress what has essentially been water-treading with the character for the subsequent 18 years, that it has remained in print demonstrates just what a breakthrough work it was. The key to understanding both THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN is that they're both comedies, and Frank has specified that the Batman of DKR is the Adam West Batman 20 years on. Which makes the various versions of the JLA and other '60s DC heroes scattered throughout DKSB the '60s versions (not that Frank tries to hide it, since the Flash is Barry Allen and Green Lantern is Hal Jordan) after 25 years of suppressing their true natures. And that's what the book is all about: the consequences of suppressing the true nature of superheroes to suit the piddling concerns of the real world, and following their natural progressions into outlaws, terrorists and gods. Though not entirely original – it parallels Alan's MIRACLEMAN, among other things – the concept's open to much more development that the now tired "standard" superhero myth, and watching these characters feel a sudden surge of liberation as they joyously embrace their true possibilities gives a liberating pleasure to the reader as well. (I suspect it's this message of anarchic liberation combined with the anarchic liberation of Frank's art style – another example of form beautifully matching function – that had so many readers up in arms.) If THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS burned out the possibilities of Batman, THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN explodes whole new potentially rejuvenating realms of possibility on the DC Universe, possibilities the company will almost certainly never follow up on. Far from being the disaster many claimed it was, THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN is brilliant.

Finally, there's Checker Press' releases of Alan Moore's SUPREME: THE STORY OF THE YEAR and SUPREME: THE RETURN, which are also something of wolves in sheep's clothing. Supreme, if you've never read the character, was Rob Liefeld's "homage" to Superman; literally recreated by Alan and a host of artists, it becomes both a paean to the Mort Weisinger era of SUPERMAN, and, like Alan's Superman story, "Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?", that barely predated the Byrne revamp of the character, the series demonstrates a genuine affection for that material while rather savagely (and possibly unconsciously) undermining it. It's all here: alliterative names, fortresses of solitude, female counterparts, flying dogs and giant apes, envious geniuses, and parallels of nearly every DC hero of the Silver Age, continuing the sort of thing Moore began with the abortive 1963 series. Much of the story is given to faithful "recreations" of non-existent back issues, and throughout the series (as in much of Alan's ABC Comics stuff) characters have the vague sense they exist in a comic book. Enjoyable on their own, the "old" stories are also commentaries on inadequacies and failures of superheroics, as when Supreme invents a machine to show him various outcomes of romantic involvements (also a commentary on female stereotypes in comics of the time) or when the equivalent of '40s DC superheroes are transported into the worlds of EC Comics (WEIRD SCIENCE-FANTASY, SHOCK SUSPENSTORIES and MAD) and find themselves unable to cope. It probably helps to have a strong familiarity with the history of comics and with the Weisinger age in particular, but the story seems enjoyable enough without ancillary knowledge, particularly since Alan's in full idea mode, shotgunning crazy bits right and left. Which is really the only thing that can save an "homage" like this: transforming it into something else, and which, probably not coincidentally, is the underlying theme in SUPREME. Alan handles it well enough (alongside artists like Chris Sprouse, Rick Veitch, and Gil Kane) that after awhile Supreme finally becomes an interesting character in his own right apart from meta-references, but by the end of two volumes, climaxed by a tribute to Jack Kirby that makes explicit the series' themes, the concept wears a little thin and you start to wish Alan would move to something completely original. Which he then did with the ABC books like PROMETHEA, TOP 10 and LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, remolding common comics tropes into things genuinely new rather than reiterating and improving the old.

Regular readers of this column are aware I normally dislike superhero "homages." THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN and SUPREME carry a couple messages for anyone bent on doing anymore "homages": it's already been done, there's no point in doing it unless you can bring something truly new to the table, and it's already been done by better than you.

Lots more where those came from, including a pile of recent Marvel compilations. At any rate, the graphic novel revolution is on, at least in libraries, and with it comes an opportunity for great new work, the revival of lost gems that didn't make it the first time, and, with the publication of classic old material, a real opportunity for a new style of comics criticism.

The gravy at Fox looks pretty lumpy next season. Fox, we may recall, came to prominence with over the top material (MARRIED WITH CHILDREN; THE SIMPSONS) that pushed the boundaries of what was considered "good taste" on network TV, and with intentionally "cultish" fare (THE X-FILES) that was parlayed into a phenomenon. Oh, and... um... well, nothing else, really. Fox has never really been able to coalesce any success into a style or movement. MARRIED WITH CHILDREN failed to materialize a spinoff, THE X-FILES didn't buy creator Chris Carter any juice for MILLENNIUM, LONE GUNMAN or HARSH REALM, nor did any of the X-FILES knockoffs – wait, I mean "variations" – from other producers (or networks) do any business. Even though Fox owns the current king of "reality" TV, AMERICAN IDOL, it can't even cut a break there; despite the involvement of renowned superstar Monica Lewinsky (who is alleged to have taken the gig so she'd have something new to call the most embarrassing thing she ever did), MR. PERSONALITY is DOA and MARRIED BY AMERICA and the truly obnoxious 30 SECONDS TO FAME got the same treatment, while an upcoming summer junior IDOL spinoff smacks of desperation (not to mention already being done by NBC, boringly).

So what's coming, now that they've also dumped JOHN DOE and FASTLANE and a bunch of other shows the country forgot about ten seconds after they aired? At least one vaguely interesting series, THE O.C. (9PM Thursdays), interesting mainly because of the involvement of film director Doug Liman (SWINGERS, GO, THE BOURNE IDENTITY), though somewhat less interesting for being a soap opera about an Orange County beach community with – urgh – dark secrets, and for having the involvement of film director McG (CHARLIE'S ANGELS, FASTLANE). Still, Liman... there's at least the threat of something unexpected there... Oh, and there's a remake of EARLY EDITION called TRU CALLING (8PM Thursdays), only in this version a woman (in EE, it was a guy) gets to go back in time a day to change what happens to people (instead of reading tomorrow's paper today and changing the headlines). It sounds like they should've called it TOUCHED BY A TIME TRAVELLER, or maybe QUICKLY MURDERED BY FRIENDS AND SURVIVOR, and I can't tell you how tired I am of these "human interest" weepers suborning perfectly good sci fi concepts for tepid little personal dramas. (BUFFY fans may be attracted by star Eliza Dushka, though.) Then there's SKIN (9PM Mondays), a Romeo-and-Juliet soap set against the backdrop of the porn industry (didn't producer Jerry Bruckheimer get enough of that with the horrendous 8MM). But wait! You'd think this was another case of Fox "pushing the envelope" but they're promising it'll be clean and won't focus on the business! (At least not until sweeps.) The new Fox comedies sound... ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (9:30PM Sundays) will give Jason Bateman another sitcom to kill, but this time it won't be his fault: an accounting scandal keeps a single father from leaving the family business; LUIS (8:30PM Fridays) stars one of my fave character actors, Luis Guzman, as a Hispanic donut shop owner in Harlem, which suggests either utter brilliance or a complete train wreck the likes of which haven't been seen since Norman Lear stopped trying to prove how socially progressive he was by letting characters make racial wisecracks at each other. Norm Macdonald tries for another shot as – wait a minute, another New Yorker moves to the heartland?!! Is this the season Manhattan finally gets abandoned? (I sense a little post-9-11 anxiety belatedly working its way to Hollywood.) In A MINUTE WITH STAN HOOPER (8:30PM Wednesdays), Norm is banished to the wastelands of... Milwaukee. (I grew up in Wisconsin, and while Milwaukee's boring it's not exactly uncivilized, even by Manhattan standards.) Finally, there's Cheech Marin in THE ORTEGAS about a Hispanic family (I guess Fox is going for the Hispanic audience this year, since ABC's THE GEORGE LOPEZ SHOW proved there is one) that turns its backyard into the set for a talk show hosted by their kid. While there was a similar show a few years back about a teenage girl who hosts a cable show from her bedroom, this one sounds just bizarre enough (plus it's got Cheech Marin, after all) to merit a look. Like ABC and the WB, Fox also announced a slate of replacement shows; heavy lies the head that wears the timeslot. But at least 24 is back, though what they're going to do after nuking the Mojave desert and starting World War III is hard to fathom.

CBS cleaned house, wiping out lots of sitcoms like the much touted MY BIG FAT GREEK LIFE, which turned a rambling, plotless hit film into a rambling, plotless standard sitcom, and teeth-clenchingly earnest dramas like THE AGENCY (so much for idolizing the CIA) and PRESIDIO MED. Ever notice how everyone on CBS dramas plays them like they've got large corks up their butt? Unlike other networks, CBS goes heavy on drama this year and forsakes sitcoms, and, given CSI etc. are now dominant forces on network TV, it's hard to say they don't know their audiences. And no wonder: one of the new sitcoms, THE STONES (9:30PM Wednesdays)(which you'd think would be an OSBORNES-style show about the world's greatest rock'n'roll band, so it's got that disappointment factor built right into the title) has the stunningly hilarious premise of grown kids being upset their parents getting divorced. Hey! You're grown up! Grow up! Oh, wait, did I mention one kid's a science nerd, the other's a swinger, and the whole family lives together? On what planet? The other sitcom, TWO AND A HALF MEN (9:30PM Mondays) is another "oddball family" setup, except this time a freelance writer – you know, the kind that leads the swinging lifestyle, which eliminates just on financial grounds 99.99% of the freelance writers I know – becomes the host for his brother, yet another TV single parent with a precocious kid. When was officially decided single parents are automatically funny? But at least this one has Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer, so I hope the material's a lot better than it sounds, because they are. In dramas, David Kelley trots out THE BROTHERHOOD OF POLAND NH (10PM Wednesdays) with an all-star cast and I've already bored just saying the title. I'm told there are diehard fans of PICKET FENCES out there (another show that bored me to tears) so this is a present to them, I'd guess. COLD CASE (8PM Sundays) is the show I mentioned while talking about the BBC drama WAKING THE DEAD a few weeks back, another Bruckheimer attempt to mine the CSI audience, about a female cop who works unsolved cases; does the Philly setting suggest a crossover with HACK (now 9PM Saturdays)? Joe Pantalioni's an FBI agent who runs presumably attractive young undercover agents in THE HANDLER (10PM Fridays). Diehard MY SO-CALLED LIFE fans get a present from Amber Tamblyn with JOAN OF ARCADIA (8PM Fridays), about a middle-class family whose daughter gets messages from God – about which guest-star will be having a mawkish human interest arc this week, from the sound of it. Finally, since CSI successfully spun off CSI MIAMI, but that's already pulling the franchise a bit thin, CBS is trying to confuse everyone with a JAG spinoff called NAVY CIS (8PM Tuesdays). Interestingly, there's thread running through some of this stuff that CBS has, perhaps inadvertently tapped into: Americans love to know how things work. That's the real appeal of CSI, after all: finding out how forensics experts put it all together. Seeing how people are tracked down is what makes WITHOUT A TRACE interesting. Even JAG occasionally has intriguing swerves into the practices and psychology of the military. I can make a lot of snide comments about CBS, but their ability to meld this with entertainment is what's making them the strongest network currently out there.

Ah, finally, UPN. Otherwise known as the non-network. Gone is BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and nothing else stuck around long enough to matter. ENTERPRISE (8PM Wednesdays) is on its last season (is it four years already, or are they just cutting their losses?). WWE SMACKDOWN (8PM Thursdays) still holds their Thursday night, they're giving Friday to movies, so we're talking ten remaining slots and they've replaced half of that. The only drama's JAKE 2.0 (9PM Wednesdays, and stands pretty much no shot at survival in that timeslot), about a computer geek who's remade by nanotechnology into a secret agent, with nanopowers. They have secret agents on the brain over at UPN; no matter how many secret agent shows bomb (including SECRET AGENT MAN) they just keep stepping up to the plate. The hook on this one's that it's based on real nanotechnology. Presumably more than ENTERPRISE is based on real trilithium crystal technology. Dan Cortese plays a radio shock jock caught the demands of his boss and his wife on ROCK ME BABY (9PM Tuesdays). THE MULLETS (9:30 Tuesdays) is a low high-concept show starring Loni Anderson about a family with big hair, which claims to be going after the Farrelly Brothers audience, and I hear the Farrellys have been looking for it lately as well. THE OPPOSITE SEX (8:30 Mondays) stars Eve, whoever that is, and Ali Landry as single girls coping with work and dating, while ALL OF US is a fictionalization of the lives of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith about a couple trying to leave their old lives behind and create a new life together. These two last concepts aren't exactly stunningly original, but compared to the overwrought concepts of other sitcoms, they seem fresh and possibly appealing. I'd have a better idea if I'd ever watching a sitcom on UPN, but I can't remember the last time I watched anything on UPN except SMACKDOWN, which they somehow turned from a great show (as wrestling shows go) into just appalling crap (as wrestling shows go).

I'm still looking forward to AMAZING RACE 4(CBS, 8PM Thursdays starting May 29) more than anything. Now that's entertainment. Seriously.

Fox's AMERICAN IDOL has clearly outlived its usefulness. Finishing its second season tonight, in a bloated "two hour special" (8PM), it shows how burned out the concept is. Whatever you think of her, at the end of the first season it was clear that Kelly Clarkson deserved to win. (Though who on earth picked the swill she's been singing in her appearances this year? Not that Justin Guarini's been given any better, and Tamyra Gray's excruciatingly distended "Over The Rainbow," which found her unable to hold a note so she just made a bunch of them up, settles finally any suggestion that she was robbed last year. She really wasn't.) This year's competition has rightfully come down to the best two singers in it, which is pretty much the problem: neither really deserve to win. Listening to "velvet teddybear" Ruben Studdard last week, I realized something: he can't sing! He has a range of an octave, and one vocal style, and whenever he's forced outside of that he gets the look of a bleeding man tossed into shark-infested waters. Clay Aiken, on the other hand, really can sing – but he's the new Anthony Newley. Last week's competition really pointed up weaknesses in the show's production as well, particularly that "choose your own" nonsense. If Don McLean's treakly, self-important "Vincent" is really such a bad song (and it is; I don't think Clay forgot the lyrics, I think he fell asleep), then what the hell was it doing there in the first place? I love "Mac The Knife," but why do you give that to a singer you've accused of being too Broadway? (Which is Clay's natural realm, let's face it.) Paula Abdul's endless struggle to put three straight inconsequential words together invalidated her as a judge, but it's Randy Jackson who gets on my nerves, since he always complains to the contestants about the arrangements when the producers determine the arrangements and the singers are trapped in them like flies in a spider's web. Talk about blaming the victims. Regardless, how does singing a lot of old crap prove someone's a potential modern pop idol? If it comes down to singing, Clay should win, if popularity probably Ruben, but neither's a pop star as we understand the term today. As Simon would say, "Terrible, just terrible."

I can run a compilation column of old segments (I'll probably repeat just comics commentary), or

If anyone out there has 1000 words or so about the current state of comics (artistically, businesswise, culturally, positive, negative or any combination thereof) they're dying to put into circulation, the slot's open, next week only. I normally run outside comments anonymously, but in this case names of all contributors will be noted (sure, if there's more than one I think is good enough to run, I'll run more than one) so here's your chance at notoriety. If you want it. It's okay with me either way.

The bad news: you've only got until Saturday (yes, this Saturday) to get it in.

For publishers and professionals: last week I brought up a discussion on what should be considered a decent graphic novel deal these days – something that must be considered in the light of what I wrote above – and tossed it open to the industry, under shield of anonymity, but I'm a bit dismayed that, while this may be the most important issue facing freelancers in this business today, only one person has stepped up to the plate. I still want to hear your viewpoints, and you've got a couple weeks before a new column to organize your thoughts. Let's try to get a consensus going here.

In other news, the Superman graphic novel Gil Kane and I co-plotted from an idea of Gil's, ANCIENT BLOOD, which Gil was in the midst of penciling when he died and which was completed by John Buscema shortly before he died, is finally finished, courtesy of inker Kevin Nowlan, and I'm proofing it now. No word yet on when DC will publish it, but I don't imagine it'll be long now. (For those who care, it's the story of Superman's first ancestor on a ruined, barbaric prehistoric Krypton.)

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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