Thursday, October 30, 2014

On -isms: A Gateway to Inclusiveness?

My wife was chatting with a co-worker the other day, and mentioned in passing the town I grew up in. The co-worker stopped her to verify she heard the name right. It turns out that her son had visited the town on a couple occasions as a member of the high school band. Kind of a "battle of the bands" thing, I gather.

Besides the serendipity of my growing up there and being a member of the band myself once upon a time, what stood out in the conversation was that the co-worker recalled the name vividly mostly because the locker room her son's band was given to use had been graffitied with a number of racial epithets in preparation for the mostly Black band. This was not decades ago, mind you; her boy just turned nineteen. Furthermore, when the issue was brought to the attention of school officials, the response was essentially, "Get over it."

This is the town I grew up in.

Obviously, I still know people who live there. And I know people who used to live there, and still live nearby. I've tried talking to some of them about racial issues, largely to see how far away from the local norm I was in my attitudes. Most of them said racism and bigotry were bad things, but had little to no first-hand experience with it personally. (The area is still predominantly white, not surprisingly.) One women did relay the story of another friend of hers who was in a mixed-race marriage, and his parents cut ties with him entirely. Slammed the door on his face, and years later still refuse to talk to him. Another person expressed what struck me as pretty bigoted comments, and when I confronted him about it, he literally said that he wasn't bigoted, he was just relying on negative stereotypes because he didn't really know the individual in question.

I was fortunate that I was able to leave behind this town of closed-minded people when I turned 18.

I didn't choose to leave the town because of racism or bigotry. At the time, it was largely a non-issue because the town's population was 99.9% white. But I did leave because of the overall mindset that tends to go along with bigotry. That anything different than the majority is to be reviled and ridiculed. That there's no place for anything beyond what's most common.

I credit comics for allowing me to appreciate diversity. I've written before about how New Mutants #45 contained a powerful message of inclusion for me, but it was more than that single issue. The Fantastic Four would regularly encounter alien races that they treated with respect, and racial minorities like Black Panther and Wyatt Wingfoot regularly wove their way through the stories as well. Even just the basic set-up of a non-traditional family unit showed me that "family" didn't have to be Mom, Dad and 2.5 kids.

There were undoubtedly other comics that influenced this line of thinking as well. I had the Green Lantern issues that introduced John Stewart, and I caught bits of the story where Tony Stark was replaced by Jim Rhodes as Iron Man. Certainly, all of that contributed. Especially with having read them as far back as I can remember, probably well before I could actually read the words on the page.

Was it just comics? No. I'm sure the likes of Seasame Street and The Cosby Show have their place. But I know those shows were also watched by some of the same people who continue to profess bigoted ideas. (Or, at least they did the last time I talked to them.)

I suspect comics had more to do with opening the door to the possibility of new ideas. It opened enough for me to see how truly small and petty the town was, and helped convince me to look towards broader intellectual and emotional horizons. The school I went to was considerably more cosmopolitan, boasting a student body roughly four times what the entire population of my hometown was. And that's where I found a need to be more receptive to new cultures and ideas, where I regularly encountered people of different races and sexual orientations.

I don't know that comics writ large taught me to be discard the bigotry that surrounded me growing up, but the specific comics I read taught me about understanding, and by leaving to go to a larger, more diverse community, I was able to find direct and immediate applications of that understanding. I'm sure that not everyone who read the comics I did took that same path, and I'm sure that not everyone who has a similar understanding followed the same path. But I think it does speak to the power of comics (or, for that matter, any media about which someone is deeply invested) to help create a more progressive and accepting society.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Links

  • Doc Jenkins offers a review/appreciation of Bryan Talbot and the documentary about him: Graphic Novel Man.
  • Mike Mendoza has this piece at the Oregon Daily Emerald about the 700+ Golden Age comics that are housed at the Knight Library. They're largely from the collection of writer Gardner Fox.
  • The New York Times profiles Lalo Alcaraz.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

On History: Kirby's Superman

The perennial problem with studying Jack Kirby is that he was so damned prolific that it's almost impossible to keep up with everything he's done. Even twenty years after his death!

I stumbled across this Superman piece recently; I think it's the first time I've seen it. It was a pin-up Jack did for Superman #400 in 1984. My guess is that Jack actually drew this in 1983 (writer Elliot S! Maggin's introduction is dated Feburary 1984). This would have been significantly after he had drawn the man of steel in his Fourth World stories of the 1970s, but shortly before he began work on the Super Powers comic that ran throughout 1984.

What I find interesting is Superman's face here. Back in the '70s, DC felt Jack's rendition of Superman's face was too off-model and had them redrawn (often by Al Plastino or Murphy Anderson). Jack's illustrations were left largely intact for Super Powers but tweaked a bit with the inking, as Jack never seemed to get a good handle on Supes' hair.

And while it appears to me that inker Terry Austin did make some adjustments to Superman's hair in this piece, it remains remarkably in Jack's style, and feels very organic to the art. It doesn't feel pasted on, or overly redrawn. If I hadn't looked at so much of Jack's art before, I might assume that's precisely how he pencilled it.

And what's more, there's a hint of a resemblence to Christopher Reeve in there as well. It's not a definitive likeness, but the mouth and eyes seem to bear more than a casual similarity. I half wonder if Jack was doing that deliberately and just missed the mark a bit, or if Austin deliberately played up some initially accidental similarities while he was inking.

Of course, I have been known to have been seriously wrong about Jack's work before, so maybe I'm just making up a bunch of unfounded garbage!

Monday, October 27, 2014

On Business: Comics vs. Prints

This is a picture of Mike Gray, tabling in an Artist Alley. I don't know him and, as far as I can recall, never seen him at any shows I've been to, but it's clear shot of a pretty typical set-up. He's got his comics to sell on the right, and a portfolio of prints in front. From the looks of it, mostly superheroes done in his personal cartooning style.

One thing I've noticed the past couple years, and seen a few creators speak to recently, is that there's been a significant increase in the sales of prints over comics. Walking down some Artist Alleys this year, I couldn't help but notice that a number of artists didn't have any comics to sell at all, and were just selling prints. They were illustrators, not cartoonists. Comic artists, too, seemed to have more prints available than comics.

Now, from the creators' perspective, I totally get this. It's generally easier to do a single illustration than an entire comic, and there's a considerably higher profit margin on them as well. So that artists of all stripes have shifted their focus to what's easier to create, more likely to sell, and brings in more money makes complete sense. That's how capitalism is supposed to work.

What I don't get is why people are putting more money towards prints than comics. Like I said, I've seen/heard multiple artists speak to this lately. Where a customer will buy a $20 print, when the exact same artwork is included in a $20 book collection that has a bunch of comics in it as well. The print may be a little larger and easier to frame, but... what are people doing with these prints? I mean, how much wall space do they have to hang them?

My thinking is that if an artist creates a really cool image -- say, Blue Falcon giving Space Ghost a beat-down that harkens back to Frank Miller's Dark Knight -- I might save it as a background for my phone, or make it an image in my desktop's screen saver or something, but it would be something where I could display it fairly regularly and appreciate it. Now you can do that, too, by putting it up on your wall but, as I suggested, you have a pretty finite amount of wall space to hang stuff like this.

So what do people do with all these prints? Seriously, I have no idea. Are they regularly pulling artwork down off their walls as they buy new pieces? Do they just hold on to them and keep them in a portfolio or something? I understand creators working to meet the demand here; I just don't understand the demand in the first place.

Friday, October 24, 2014

On Strips: Extra Hulk Strips?

In the late 1970s, in an effort to capitalize on the relative success of the television show, Marvel started an Incredible Hulk comic strip. That the main character is called David Banner, and not Bruce Banner, is the key pointing back to the show of course. The scripts were credited to Stan Lee, and the art duties got shifted around to various artists like Larry Lieber, Rich Buckler, Alan Kupperberg, Ernie Chan and Frank Giacoia. The strip only lasted a few years (from October 1978 and until September 1982) and was retired with little fanfare as a minor point of Hulk trivia.

But I stumbled across this piece of ephemera, which has my brain cogs spinning...
It's 1980 coloring book featuring the Hulk. Except it's formatted like a comic strip. And pretty short with only sixteen pages. And while the illustrations aren't terribly elaborate, they do seem unusually detailed for a coloring book. The strips are credited to David Anthony Kraft (writing), Win Mortimer and Sal Brodsky (pencils), and Chic Stone (inking).

Given the timing and the format, my first thought is that it's artwork from the comic strip, just repurposed for this book. The "all new" starburst on the cover, though, suggests that these strips were never published before. Also, as far as I can tell, none of the creators here actually worked on the Hulk strip. So where did this come from?

My guess is that these were strips that were intended as a try-out for the comic strip, but veered too far from the newspaper characterizations and were rejected based on that. The comic strip itself was produced by Marvel. That they had a series of artists working on it suggests that it was farmed out to whoever was available, and were relying on the Hulk name itself as the selling point. With perhaps some additional emphasis on Lee's name as the face of Marvel. Of course, Lee's name went on a lot of material that he didn't write, and it was in fact Lieber who wrote the strip under Lee's byline for several months after Lee had actually stopped writing it.

The strip, as I noted, followed the characterizations from the TV show. The Hulk never spoke, and the antagonists were, by-and-large, not of the supervillain variety. In the coloring book, not only does the Hulk speak (much like the comics) but the storylines are much more in line with the comic books as he faces off against The Leader and The Rhino.

It's also interesting to note Mortimer's art here. While he did work at Marvel on occasion, particularly during the 1970s, he had never worked on the Hulk before (or since). But he HAD spent the better part of a decade years earlier drawing the Superman newspaper strip, so he was clearly comfortable with the format. He was also familiar with the TV-tie-in property idea, having worked on Spidey Super Stories.

One last thing to notice. I can't confirm whether or not this was actually published by Marvel, but it was almost certainly NOT published by Whitman. Which is noteworthy because Whitman was pretty much THE go-to publisher of licensed property coloring books at the time. In fact, any other Hulk coloring book from that period you will find bears a large Whitman logo in the corner of the cover. Why wouldn't they haven't published this one as well?

So my theory is that Marvel first pulled together these strips in 1978 to shop around as a tie-in to the TV show. They got Kraft (who seemed to be the ubiquitous Marvel writer of the late 1970s) to write a few weeks' worth of material and pulled in Mortimer as someone familiar with the comic strip format/pacing. After taking it to a syndicate or two, they got feedback saying something to the effect of, "Sure, great idea! But this doesn't look like the TV show at all. Make it more like that and we'll buy it." So they went back to Lieber for the rework, with Lee getting pulled in for some name recognition. These strips were left lying around for a couple years before someone had the coloring book idea to make at least some money off this already-produced-and-paid-for artwork. Whitman probably wouldn't do it since A) the stories are too short, and B) the format is radically different than the 8x10 size they always go with. It simply wouldn't fit in with the rest of what they were already set up to work on. Marvel put it together in some other package (it originally came with a set of markers as well) and hopefully managed to at least recoup their losses before this fell into the scrapheap of transient superhero tie-ins.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

On -isms: How Typical Is Historical Misogyny?

A few weeks ago, I talked a bit about an early science fiction convention from 1891 based on Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1871 novel The Coming Race. (Later editions retitled it Vril, the Power of the Coming Race.) The convention itself aside, my interest was piqued enough that I dug up a copy of the book and started reading it. Last night, I had to give up.

The book was a bit of a slog for me in the first place. I don't care much for Bulwer-Lytton's overly flowery prose, and couple that with a "plot" that largely consists of long-winded descriptions of the whole society. The book is not so much a story, but mostly has the main character convalescing and reporting on how this new society is different from Victorian England. It reads kind of like a wish list of what Bulwer-Lytton would like the world to be. Everyone is healthy and attractive and strong, no one is poor or homeless, they have a limitless supply of free energy... It's horribly dry material, which is I suppose why the author tried to make it more interesting with lots of unnecessarily verbose descriptions.

And then I got to chapter ten. It starts...
The word Ana (pronounced broadly 'Arna') corresponds with our plural 'men;' An (pronounced 'Arn'), the singular, with 'man.' The word for woman is Gy (pronounced hard, as in Guy); it forms itself into Gy-ei for the plural, but the G becomes soft in the plural like Jy-ei. They have a proverb to the effect that this difference in pronunciation is symbolical, for that the female sex is soft in the concrete, but hard to deal with in the individual. The Gy-ei are in the fullest enjoyment of all the rights of equality with males, for which certain philosophers above ground contend.
Let's set aside the renaming-things-for-the-sake-of-renaming-things motif; and we'll even disregard the narratively useless changes in pronunciation. What's bugging me here, and what forced me to quit reading this entirely was that whole "female sex is soft in the concrete, but hard to deal with in the individual" bit. Basically, he's saying that women are weak but a pain in the ass when you actually talk with one of them. I should hope that I don't have to explain how sexist that is, right?

Now, granted, that was written in 1871, before a national women's suffrage movement even started in England, much less gained any sort of traction. So it's hardly surprising that Bulwer-Lytton held some sexist attitudes. That he even provides the platitude about enjoying equal rights as men would have been a progressive statement. But that he tosses that equality line out after spending an entire paragraph explaining why woman and women have two distinct pronunciations, it rings pretty hollow. "Sure, women are equal to men, just not as equal."

This shows up in comics all the time. Stuff written in the Golden Age seems incredibly sexist today. And if it's written (or drawn) poorly on top of that? Well, it makes reading through it that much more of a slog. If not outright impossible.

The thing of it is that this captures the mood and tenor of the time in which it's written. Art is a reflection of society, right? More accurately, art is a reflection of what one creator interprets as the current status of the society in which s/he lives. So to say everyone in 1871 thought the same way Bulwer-Lytton did would be the equivalent of saying that everyone in 2014 thought the same way Dave Sim does. That said, that Bulwer-Lytton remained a popular author for much of his life suggests that his thinking wasn't that uncommon. Just as, through crapfests like Gamergate, we can see that Sim's thinking isn't all that uncommon either. (Just to be clear, "not uncommon" is still a far cry from "prevalent" or even "typical.")

All of which is to say that any given comic you read is indeed a reflection of the time it was created. But to see precisely how much of a reflection, you would need to look at a number of different comics from a number of different creators from the same time period. (Fortunately, comics' serial periodical format makes it fairly simple to identify contemporary issues!) Does Robert Crumb really speak for everyone in 1968 with Zap Comix #1? Or is that perhaps tempered by Stan Lee and John Romita's Amazing Spider-Man? Or John Broome and Ross Andru's Flash? Or Russ Manning's Magnus, Robot Fighter? Or Leonard Starr's Mary Perkins, On Stage? Or Hank Ketcham's Dennis the Meance?

The collective view of society would, in fact, be reflected in all of these. And while you may have to put an individual book down because the outdated views are too grating to read, know that that particular story may not be indicative of everything of that period.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Links