Latest Posts

Here are this week's links to what I've had published recently...

Kleefeld on Comics: The Michael Ellis Post

Kleefeld on Comics: I'm a Cop Review

Kleefeld on Comics: Thoughts For Aspiring Writers

Kleefeld on Comics: Radium Girls Review

Cy's Radium Girls came out earlier this year from Iron Circus Comics. It tells the true story of the women who painted glow-in-the-dark watch dials in the early 1900s and how the dangers of the radium-laced paint was kept from them until well after several them had died. The book follows the story of a small group of women, and how they carried about their lives both in and out of the factory.

I don't recall when I first heard of the so-called "radium girls." I seem to recall being at least nominally familiar with the tale by the time it was brought up during my MBA when we were discussing corporate malfeasance and liability. However, the end notes make it clear that Cy had only become aware of these events relatively recently, so I honestly have no idea how commonly known they are.

What makes Radium Girls stand out over other iterations of the story that I'd seen/heard, though, is that it was very much focused on the women as individuals. Every other time I've seen them come up, it might cite some of their names, but at most only as litigants in the eventual lawsuit. What Cy does here is humanize them. The story is about them, not so much the horrible consequences they faced at the end of their lives -- though that is here too -- but how they were all people with hopes, dreams, quirks, foibles, and everything else that make us human. They go out dancing. They go to the beach. They gossip. They get into arguments. They raise families. They live their lives and we, the readers, witness them.

And when they do start coming down with initially mysterious illnesses, we see it from their perspective. It's less about the clinical diagnoses and more about how they feel. About everything from their teeth falling out to the betrayal by an employer they trusted. These women weren't their jobs. They weren't their illnesses. They were people. And that's something that's been lacking in all of the accounts I've come across previously.

These women's tale, sadly, is often told in the wrong context. It's often told as a warning to businesses, usually as a scare tactic to convince them to cover their asses legally. It's rarely told as a tragedy but more frequently as a fable. "It's okay if your production line is dangerous to human life, just be sure they can't sue you for it later." You don't often hear of successful cases like these precisely because that was the lesson corporate America took from it. Not "do right by your employees" but "fuck your employees as much as you want, just cover your ass while you do so."

Cy's art isn't flashy; in fact, it's very soft and quiet. Which are further emphasized with her choice of using colored pencils for everything, and a limited color palette of them to boot. But there's a style and elegance to her art that feels reminiscent of art deco -- rather appropriate given the time period the book covers. It showcases the elegance of Cy's linework and the amount of depth you can get with just a few strokes.

The book came out, I believe, a couple months ago initially through a crowd-funding campaign. It's not, as of this writing, available on Iron Circus' site but I expect that to change soon. It retails for $15.00 US.
It's a bit strange to think of myself as a writer. I was just another blogger when I started Kleefeld on Comics, but now I've got an ongoing column for The Jack Kirby Collector, and I've contributed short pieces to a few different books. I've even got an Eisner nomination under my belt! So it kind of looks like I'm a writer of sorts now. Kind of makes me wish I took more classes on it in school.

When I was in, I believe, third grade, the teacher gave us a story assignment. I think it was a simple one-page story about whatever we wanted, but it was supposed to be fiction. I wrote about a battle between a barbarian and a wizard, and I liberally plagiarized the one Conan comic I had at the time. But, in that plagiarization, I lifted some dialogue. I recall the teacher being impressed and calling it out as a good example because I was the only one to use dialogue at all. No one else's story had anyone saying anything, and she pointed out how much more engaging and exciting my story was because of it. (I believe one line was something like, "Surrender, dog! Or I'll slit your throat from ear to ear!" Why that didn't seem to concern her, I don't know. Plus, a third grader coming up with that -- I'm sure she must've known that I plagarized that!)

English was, of course, a mandatory subject throughout grade school. I had pretty much all the same lessons as everyone else. I was more interested in art, though, so the "College for Kids" classes I would take up at the local community college on weekends were mostly centered around drawing. Those of us in the school's gifted & talented program did take a journalism course for one quarter in eighth grade, but it was as much about printing and production processes as it was about writing.

In high school, I somehow wound up working a bit on the school newspaper. I honestly don't know how that started because it wasn't something I actively pursued, and I never went to any meetings about it. I don't remember writing or turning anything in, but I can distinctly recall seeing my articles in the finished papers. My mom thought my report on the band's activities in one issue really stood out, and I got more than a few congratulations from other students for a particularly derisive op ed piece I wrote about the school administration. But I was more interested in the cartoons that I drew for the back of the paper.

Freshman English was mandatory in college, but I was in a graphic design program so nearly all of my projects were art related. I didn't even have many term papers to write. I did take a fiction writing class as an elective my senior year, but my pieces came across as horrendous compared to the other students in that class. My girlfriend at the time noted at one point that she thought I wrote very well. I don't know what work of mine she'd read, but she was minoring in English, so it didn't come across as completely idle praise.

But now, here I am writing every day. My day job has little to do with writing beyond emails, but there are people out there willing to pay for me to write! With little formal education or training beyond what most high school students get.

But, looking hindsight, one thing I can see that I've done is read. A lot of comics, to be sure, but a lot in general. And I often did more than just read; I took mental notes while I was reading. I wasn't thinking specifically in terms of formal writing conventions, obviously, but I could see, "Oh, the writer is dropping some heavy foreshadowing here; that's clumsy" or "Wow! That came out of left field! That doesn't make any sense!" Mostly a list of what not to do. But I still mentally absorbed things like narrative structure and character arcs and word choice.

For anyone out there who might want to be a writer -- of comics or non-fiction or whatever -- you will be told repeatedly to read a lot. Which you do need to do. But don't just; think about what you're reading. Is the author just following a standard Joseph Campbell narrative? Is the work driven by plot or characterization? What sort of tone do the specific words being used convey?

Reading is great.

Reading and thinking is even better!
Eric Garner famously said "I can't breathe" repeatedly while being held in an unauthorized chokehold by police officers in 2014 who thought he stole a packet of cigarettes. All of the cops present ignored his pleas and he died at their hands. Neither Daniel Pantaleo -- the officer who literally choked Garner to death -- or the other cops who participated were ever even indicted for any wrongdoing, much less had to face any repercussions. The New York police union, responding to the incident, started their first response with the phrase in the most incredibly tone-deaf manner possible: "We hear you."

Over the next year or three, as more incidents of police brutality made the national news, I noticed almost every time the official responses -- from the police unions to the police chiefs to lawyers speaking on behalf of the polics -- were absolutely the worst responses you could come up with for each event. Everything they said and did with each incident made them look worse. It wasn't like they were bad at PR; it was like they studied PR very closely, knew precisely how best to communicate their position, and deliberately did the exact opposite of that. There was no way so many police representatives -- and there are so, so many -- across so many regions -- literally the entire United States -- just all happened to be equally bad at talking to the media. I cannot believe those were all people misspeaking in precisely the same way. No, these were calculated messages. These were indeed well-thought out and planned. And what police were telling people was: "We actively don't give a shit what you think. We will do whatever the fuck we want and your very lives do not matter to us in the slighest."

But, hey... maybe that's just my reading things too cynically. Maybe I'm just biased to see evil where there's simply incompentence.

And that brings me to Johnny Damm's latest comic: I'm a Cop. What Damm has done has taken a variety of official police statements and put them in comic form, utilizing old public domain comic artwork from the 1950s to illustrate them. The statements -- mostly taken from 2020, but there are a few from 2021 and 2022 -- are presented in chronological order and showcase a group of people who view everyone who doesn't have a police uniform as chattel that need to be beaten into submission. There are statements saying the citizens are the ones who always escalate situations, that shouldn't have to abide by rules, that they view peaceful protest groups as terrorists, that diversity is unwelcome... I've heard/read many of these statements before, but they are always chilling in their earnestness given who they come from.

As I said, though, Damm hasn't just collected various police statements, but he's paird them with 1950s comic art. The artwork does relate to the text, but it's on the whole not strictly illustrative. For examples, the statement about how some cops are just violent by nature doesn't show police literally beating someone up, and the statement talking about how stupid a no choking policy is doesn't depict anyone being choked. However, the choices of art and the juxtopositions Damm comes up with generally manage to heighten the impact of the statements. They feel very much like the pre-Comics-Code comics from EC that, by today's standards of gore are actually rather mild from a stricly illustrative point of view, but still come across as truly horrific in the context of their stories.

There's a pretty clear audience Damm is going for here. If I give this to my best friend from high school whose father happened to be Chief of Police in the town where we grew up, he wouldn't be very receptive to it. "Oh, that's taken out of context!" "He's distorting the meanings with these images!" On the other end, you'll have someone like me who's firmly in the Defund The Police camp who nods along with every page and keeps muttering, "Fucking pigs!" over and over. I don't think there's much middle ground here -- the people who are wishy-washy about police brutality, who think there are only a few bad apples, who lap up all the copaganda because Law & Order is a good TV show -- they're not going to be swayed one way or another honestly. They'll dismiss Damm as an extremist without a second thought, just like they dismiss the very notion of defunding the police without even a first thought.

But setting aside the message here (which is, I'll emphasize, a message that I wish more people would listen to) this is still worth picking up just for the formal comics elements alone. That Damm can take tame-by-today's-standards art and pair it with statements to make them even more starkly horrific than their prima face ugliness would suggest is worth studying. He's using art to amplify meaning, yes, but he's doing so in a way that is by no means obvious.

I'm a Cop is self-published by Damm and is available now from his website for $8 US. Check it out and remember ACAB!
You like comic books, right? Sure, you do. Otherwise you wouldn't be here. (Well, probably not universally true given the title of this post, but you'll just have to excuse my cross-cultural references today.) So you like comic books.


What makes you spend money on comics that might otherwise go towards movies or video games or even something substantial like food or shelter? Why is it that you visit Metropolis or Astro City or wherever on a regular basis, fully aware in the knowledge that no matter who much you study the place, you will never be able to experience first-hand? Why is that learn about Spider-Man or The Phantom or whomever, knowing you have precisely zero chance of actually meeting them?

Let me back up a bit as those questions point to a more extreme end of comic book hobbyists.

The term "hobby" first appeared in relation to the "hobby horse" -- an artificial horse used originally in a specific type of dance. By the 1500s, the term broadened a bit to include any sort of mock horse and it was frequently used to speak of a child's toy (as children were the ones who had the most use of fake horses). It about a century for the word "hobby" to stand on it's own and carry the meaning we generally associate with it today, with the original tie being that, like a hobby horse, one's hobbies don't really go anywhere.

(Yes, while there are a number of comic book collectors who do turn into professionals of some sort, there are many, many more who do not. Their comic book hobby, from a functional/practical point of view, leads nowhere and those people need to earn a living in some other manner.)

The reason, of course, that a term like hobby was needed was because people began to develop technology enough that they weren't required to focus on their survival every waking moment. While there was entertainment earlier than the sixteenth century certainly, there was still a great deal of time spent in making it to the next day. What free time one might have had could be spent in hobby-like pursuits, but not in sufficient quantity to really need a name for it. One could hardly say they played cards as a hobby if they only played once in a while.

Well, technology continued to improve and provide people with more free time. So towards the end of the nineteenth century, we see the rise of the term "fan." People not only had enough time to pursue an outside interest, but they could afford to pursue it often enough and with enough intensity that something stronger than "hobby" was needed. Sure, it may have been a hobby to play the violin, but Conan-Doyle's work had people excited enough to talk about it around the 1890's equivalent of the water cooler the day after his latest installment was released.

(What, exactly, would have been the 1890's equivalent of the water cooler anyway? A rusty pail and ladle filled with dirty water and backwash?)

Alright, so going back to that original question: why put some of your hard-earned money towards comics? The answer is Michael Ellis.

For those unfamiliar with the reference, there was Monty Python episode in which the unassuming protagonist, Chris Quinn, is mistaken for a man named Michael Ellis. Chris' interest in this stranger is piqued, naturally, and his life for the next half hour is riddled with obscure references to the elusive Ellis. But, by the show's end, Chris has not only been unable to find Mr. Ellis, he has no more information about the man than he did at the start of the show.

Although the show was really nothing more than absurdist humor, one can read a great deal into it. Quinn of course represents an average man in contemporary society. He shops at department stores, he watches TV, he waits in queues... Absolutely nothing special about him whatsoever. But, by whatever metaphysic intervention, he is suddenly and inexplicably dealt a string of coincidences involving Michael Ellis. Quinn, being an average man, largely ignores the coincidences except when they're directly in front of him. His interest in who Ellis is wanes quickly as the shop attendants distract him with foolishness, or as soon as the television is turned off.

So, who or what does Michael Ellis represent here?

How well do you remember The Muppet Show or Seasame Street? The classic ones, mind you, when Jim Henson was still around. The stuff that's most memorable, for many people, are the bits that revolve around chaos theory. All the best routines start off as more-or-less straightforward skits, but each error, miscommunication or lapse in judgement flows directly to another problem, each one expounding upon the next until the scene is one of havoc. (That's kind of a misleading example of chaos theory, but I think it'll suffice for it's common, albiet inaccurate, usage.) My friends in college and I used to claim that it wasn't a good Muppet skit until you had chickens running rampant on the stage.

But the theme of the shows were generally that you had a small band of friends trying to accomplish a goal and whether or not they successfully achieved it was immaterial since they were attempting it together. It was the friendship of Bert and Ernie that was important, not that Ernie had to rip off Bert's nose to finish his bust. It was that Kermit and Fozzie were signing together in a Studabaker that was important, not that they got to meet Orson Wells. The chaos that inevitably ensued in any Muppet venture was ultimately irrelevant, because that end result wasn't the point. It was the journey that mattered.

Eastern philosophy via felt and ping pong balls.

("Where the hell is Sean going with this?!?")

The thing of it is that we, as humans, are going through Life, not knowing what we're doing. No one can really answer the meaning of Life in any definitive manner, so each of us has to come to our own understanding of the universe and the nature of existence and try to act accordingly. And, in a world where mere survival is no longer the only concern, we look to external sources for whatever insights and guidance they might be able to provide, however nominal. That's why people still perform Lysistrata. That's why people study Shakespeare. That's why we read comic books.

Yeah, a lot of comics have guys and gals in spandex beating the snot out of one another. And there are a lot whose primary intention seemingly is to provide titillation to (emotionally) adolescent males. And there are folks who look down on the dominant superhero genre, or argue that comics are an art form or are literature.

But at the end of the day, every person who reads a comic is looking to understand their life a little more. They're looking to understand how the sum total of their actions have led them to where they're at today. Why are they socially inept? What are the arguments for and against starting an unprovoked war? Does it make sense for me to elect a businessman to run the country? What are the possible results of my actions? They're using chaos theory to define their current situation and probably futures.

But no one has a universal grasp on chaos theory. The guys and gals writing those comic book stories really don't know any more than you or I certainly. They're guessing as much as we are. And that's why we keep reading. We never get the answers. Not really. It turns into a hobby when we keep looking in the same types of places over and over again. We turn into fans when we start to get enjoyment out that continual search for meaning that is always just beyond out grasp. We are Chris Quinn perpetually a few steps behind Michael Ellis.

Back to the original question again: why do you like comics?

You're looking for answers, the same as everybody else. Your mind, unlike everybody else's, is keyed to the visual language of comic books. In reading comics, you see Michael Ellis a little more often. Oh, he's still not identifiable on sight, but you know he's there, wedged between the sunset and the happy ending. Somewhere between the hero's victory on the last page and the never-ending battle. You know as well as I do that you're not going to get the answers anywhere, but you enjoy the journey a little more when it's through the pages of a comic.
Here are this week's links to what I've had published recently...

Kleefeld on Comics: The Pre-Prince Valiant Etrigan Origin

Kleefeld on Comics: Breaking Newton's Third Law

Kleefeld on Comics: Marketing As Seen By Herriman

Kleefeld on Comics: The Gift Economy

Kleefeld on Comics: Comics Time Capsule

I read Comics & Culture: Analytical and Theoretical Approaches to Comics back in 2007. It's a collection of essays on various aspects of comics that were written in the late 1990s -- early 1998, by my guess. Close to, if not a full decade, before I read any of it.

What was of particular interest was Roger Sabin's article on the internet's impact on comics. Sabin, of course, was writing and researching this subject in the '90s, and it was interesting to read his thoughts on the matter with that ten years of hindsight. He had some interesting tennets in his pieces, largely in reaction to Scott McCloud's unbridled enthusiasm for the subject.

1. Sabin took issue with McCloud's definition of "comics." While I don't know that I fully agree with McCloud, I think he's more on the mark than Sabin who seemed to overly restrict comics to items that are specifically aimed at a mass media audience. Further, McCloud expressly stated in Understanding Comics was that he was proposing the defintion in lieu of anyone else having done so, and that it was a subject that can (and should!) be further debated. I think it's still a valid debate here in 2022.

2. Sabin claimed there is a false assumption that "because comics work on the printed page, they will automatically work on the net." Sabin noted that comics cannot be simply scanned and placed online and "work" in any real sense, and offered up some then-contemporary work as evidence. It seems to me natural that changing mediums like that (printed comics to computer screen) one will inevitably run into incompatibilities like those Sabin describes. But he somehow seemed to ignore the possibility that comics could be created specifically for online consumption. His idea seemed to be that the limitations inherent in printed comics are also limitations in online comics, which have further limitations imposed on them by the new medium.

He reiterated some of his intial arguements here, as well, suggesting that online comics cannot be comics because, at the time, they weren't readily accessible by a mass market. That comics needed to be easily portable and an additional level of literacy (that of the computer) was needed in order to view them. While he was indeed correct about some of the technological limitations at that time (and I can't fault him for being skeptical of then-hypothetical future advances), it still seems to me that limiting comics, by definition, to a mass-produced, mass-media environment is too inherently limiting.

3. He finally countered "False Assumption Number 3: That net comics are the next historical step for the comics medium." His rationale was largely based on the premise that the rise of one medium will not eliminate another. While that is true, certainly, he seemed to be assuming a couple of absolutes that don't make sense to me. In the first place, he was countering the arguement that net comics are the next step... which would occur in the next ten years... around the time I first read his piece. He didn't expressly put a timeline to his thesis, but there seemed to be an assumption of one, as he precluded the notion that the "next step" might occur beyond his lifetime.

In the second place, I don't know of anyone who's claimed that print comics will be completely obliterated by the rise of online comics, either webcomics or digital comics. Now that might be just the circles I travel in, but I don't believe even the biggest proponents of online comics ever claimed that print comics would entirely vanish.

I don't know if Sabin holds the same ideas today in 2022 that he held in 1998. I haven't seen Sabin write anything on comics in over a decade now. And obviously, the landscape for both the comics and computer industries has changed immensely in that time, and I think it's unreasonable to have expected Sabin to accurately predict all of those changes. But I think it's fascinating to look back on a set of opinions like these to contrast those of, say, McCloud and contrast them both against the reality of what's actually happened. Neither "side" of the debate was ultimately any more right than the other, and their predictions noticeably missed their respective marks.

Which all goes to show just how unpredictable the future really is, and that anyone (myself included) throwing out any predictions beyond the next several months is mostly blowing smoke.