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It Was Comic 

"There's a certain percentage of people who freak out when they find out who I am."

Wednesday, Feb 15 2006
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Last week at the Moscone Center, Peter David, self-proclaimed "Writer of Stuff," sat behind a table, chatting with fans at WonderCon. He wore a green polo shirt with bleach stains on one side and the standard comic-book-convention look of beard and mostly bald head.

Once upon a time, comic books were the realm of pre-pubescent nerds, who forked over nickels to read about their favorite unrealistic superhero's latest exploits. Then, sometime between the late-'70s television show The Incredible Hulk and the billion-dollar success of the recent Spider-Man movies, those kids grew up and the comics world matured into the comics industry, in which nerds of all ages obsess over their favorite unrealistic superhero's latest exploits.

So David held court in the middle of more than 90,000 square feet of booths, equidistant from a man selling action figures in their original packaging and half a dozen self-promotional stands run by models with makeup-orange skin and artificially enhanced breasts.

The more David yelled out "Dude!" when something a fan said excited him, the more Dog Bites thought that David easily could have been on the other side of the table, waiting in line for an autograph.

"I call myself a VIP: vaguely important person," David told a young female comic book aficionado. "There's a certain percentage of people who freak out when they find out who I am." The rest, of course, have no clue.

At a time when comics writers command large salaries and their names are printed on the cover in big letters, David is among the most in-demand. He's famous for a 12-year run on Hulk, and for authoring several Star Trek novels, among dozens of others, and he just signed an exclusive deal with Marvel Comics. However, David said, he owes much of his success to those who've illustrated his books. "The writer is king when it comes to the novel," said David, "but with comic books, it's all about the artist."

A fan in a Spider-Man print shirt led his girlfriend over to the table and gushed to David about a recent Trek novel: "The way you do continuity ...."

David's eyes lit up. "Oh, I was going out of my mind with that book. Going down, like, a checklist, where everything had to converge at that moment when Capt. Picard meets the other Picard," he said. "I was thinking: 'What the hell have I done to myself?'"

"I read it in one sitting," bragged another young man leaning over the table. "Came home from the mall, reading until I finished at, like, 4 in the morning, the blood almost draining from my fingers."

Stacks of stapled paper lay on the table, surrounding a handwritten note that read: "Original Comic Scripts: One for Fifteen, Two for Twenty." They looked something like movie screenplays -- one began: "PANEL A: We are in a morgue. Morlen is there ...."

A WonderCon organizer tapped David on the shoulder and requested a brief meeting a few feet away to discuss lunch and logistics. "Excuse me, guys," he said to the fans. "Sorry about this, you understand."

As he returned to his chair, David said to the staff member, "Thanks, you da man," before raising his hands to the ceiling and yelling: "I love my life!"

Then he regaled the group with a word-for-word quotation from one of his greatest triumphs: a Princess Bride reference slipped into a Star Trek book. (Ryan Blitstein)

We're No. 1!

Nobody has ever mistaken Dog Bites for a sentient being, much less a prophet. Those slights aside, we feel pretty certain that the city's guardians won't launch a tourism campaign touting the 96 murders committed here last year, the highest total in a decade. "Blood in the Streets!" might work as a catchy slogan for Belfast, but San Francisco likes to pose as a more dignified metropolis.

Then again, maybe that's all it is: a pose. A new study by the Improving Crime Data Project shows that San Francisco had the highest homicide rate among the 67 largest U.S. cities in 2004, when our fair burg racked up 88 slayings. In effect, the study posits that with our generally boffo quality of life -- think fabulous ocean views and Gavin Newsom's hair -- we should have far fewer murders. Instead, we're the new Baltimore.

The project, coordinated by researchers at Georgia State University and funded by the National Institute of Justice, delves deeper into murder rates than the FBI's standard method of simply calculating the number of homicides per 100,000 residents. (Under that formula, San Francisco's murder rate ranked 30th nationwide in 2004, the most recent year examined in the study. New Orleans, with 265 murders, claimed the top spot.)

Researchers sought a "more meaningful comparison" of homicide levels in big cities by analyzing a range of demographic and social variables, including poverty, unemployment, and divorce rates; ethnic makeup; median household income; and population turnover. By calibrating those "crime-producing" influences, says Dr. Robert Friedmann, a criminal justice professor at Georgia State, "you get a better idea of what you would expect a city's homicide rate to be."

Indeed, among a few metro areas long regarded as chronically crime-infested, the study's findings may touch off a race to trademark the motto "Not as Deadly as You Thought!"

Detroit's 385 murders gave it the country's third-highest homicide rate two years ago, according to FBI figures. The Improving Crime Data report dropped Motown to 37th, taking into account its high unemployment and large minority underclass, factors that ostensibly should have pushed the number of murders even higher. Similarly, Atlanta plunged from seventh to 46th, while Cleveland tumbled a whopping 50 places, to 65th. (Los Angeles and Sacramento each fell five spots, to 29th and 36th, respectively.)

By contrast, a handful of cities might wish Friedmann and his cohorts would shut their data holes. San Jose jumped from 66th to 38th in the study's rankings, a reflection of 24 murders occurring in a city with a median income of roughly $70,000, more than twice that of Detroit and an affluence that presumably should have stunted the homicide toll. Likewise, Santa Ana moved up 29 places, to 18th, and Charlotte rose to 16th, a leap of 24 notches. (Oakland ascended from ninth to seventh.)

And then there's San Francisco, with our inglorious surge to first.

"That's the price you pay for living well," quips criminologist Alfred Blumstein, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, who worked on the project with Friedmann and Richard Rosenfeld, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Blumstein suggests that, given our relatively high median income of $55,000, low unemployment rate, and stable residential base, the number of homicides ought to decline. "It's a problem you should be able to do something about."

A spike in slayings in the Western Addition, the Mission, and Bayview-Hunters Point over the last two years has fanned criticism of the police as unresponsive. Officers counter that a pervasive reluctance among witnesses to talk about what they saw has enabled alleged killers to remain on the loose. Meanwhile, as discussions to hire 600 new cops begin to echo throughout City Hall, Friedmann cautions that, by itself, a thicker blue line won't stanch the bloodshed.

"You can't just treat community policing as a political buzzword," he says. "You need a comprehensive effort by the city, by public officials, by people in the community to create change."

Kevin Mullen, a retired deputy police chief and the author of three books on crime in San Francisco, puts it more succinctly: "Cops can't solve all the problems." That would seem true in the Bayview and Belfast alike. (Martin Kuz)

About The Author

Ryan Blitstein

About The Author

Martin Kuz

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