Tuesday, November 25, 2014

On History: The Anti-Comics Crusades

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you're probably at least passingly familiar with Dr. Fredric Wertham, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hearings, and the birth of the Comics Code. There are any number of books and videos out covering the subject any more, from David Hajdu's hefty book The Ten-Cent Plague to Rober A. Emmons' recent documentary Diagram for Delinquents. Or maybe you've attended a convention and heard Charles Brownstein talk about it in regards to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, or Carol Tilley speak specifically to her research in Wertham's papers. There's plenty of information out there covering all aspects of the anti-comics sentiment that grew through the late 1940s and early 1950s.

But here's the weird thing that I think most Americans don't know: the crusade against comics wasn't just in the U.S. Let me pull out some book excerpts...

From John Bell's book on Canadian comics history, Invaders from the North...
In 1949 the crime-comics campaign gained substantial momentum as community groups across the country lobbied for passage of an anti-cromics law that had been drafted the year before by E. Davie Fulton. Among those who supported a legislative response to the crime-comics problem was Prime Minister Mackenzie King...
From Anne Rubenstein's history of censorship in Mexican comics, Bad Language, Naked Ladies, & Other Threats to the Nation...
Conservative frustration with las historietas reappeared in public discourse not long after a new president, Adolfo Ruiz Cortines, took office in 1952... Despite the governmental origin of this second movement against comic books, Catholic leaders sometimes spoke as if the government--rather than producers or consumers--was responsible for objectionable print media.
From Frederik Schodt's Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics...
In the late 1940s the American Occupation authorities took a dim view of all rhetoric and activities that seemed tied to the disasterous wartime mentality. In the comics this meant replacing the old system of censorship by a new one...
And, lastly, from Paul Gravett's Great British Comics...
In response to his concerns that a minority of American comics available as imports or British reprints were exposing children to gore and sadism, [clergyman Marcus] Morris teamed up with [Frank] Hampson to offer a thoroughly wholesome alternative [in 1950].
Now, all of these countries had obviously different approaches towards "cleaning up" comics and had varying degrees of severity. But what I find striking is that all of these countries were essentially reacting to the end of World War II, despite their level of involvement. And curiously, the countries that had the strictest regulations put in place, in the name of saving the children, were the countries whose children saw the fewest effects of war. Britain had the crap bombed out of it, and we mostly just a preacher offering up a less fight-y option. Whereas Canada and the United States, separated from the primary conflict by the Atlantic Ocean, put up the greatest stink about comics' impact on children, and had the most legal actions. America was, in fact, so stringent, as noted by the quote above, they even instituted new rules for Japanese comics!

As I said, much has been written about the issues here in the States, and various authors have touched on similar issues around the globe, but I'd be curious to see a comprehensive summary of what EVERYbody was doing and how their reactions differed due to their cultural backgrounds and/or their involvement in the war. What happened in France? Australia? Italy? India? How did this seemingly world-wide comics backlash manifest elsewhere?

Monday, November 24, 2014

On Business: Need to Keep Up!

Being the week of Thanksgiving here in the U.S., it seems mandatory for any discussion on business to be about Black Friday. The phrase, as it pertains to shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, originated in the mid-1950s where traffic got very bad and traffic cops and bus drivers began using "Black Friday" to connote the horrible experiences they had. The "black" was more a reference to mourning and depression than anything else.

Merchants originally tried renaming the days after Thanksgiving as "Big Friday" and "Big Saturday" but had little success. It wasn't until the early 1980s that they began to co-opt the phrase to suggest the "black" referred to the accounting practice of using black ink for positive revenues. (As opposed to red ink for negative ones.) Fortunately (from the merchants' perspective) the phrase hadn't become really nationalized yet; a 1985 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that it hadn't been picked up yet in Cincinnati or Los Angeles. I believe it was around this time, as well, that business people began taking note of the fact that Toys R Us made a substantial portion of their yearly profits in December, further emphasizing the retail focus of Black Friday instead of the traffic congestion.

So while the basic concept behind Black Friday has been around for over half a century, it's really only been known as Black Friday for the most recent generation.

Which, as many of you will note, is the same generation who grew up with comic books being essentially only available in specialty shops fed by comics' direct market system.

What that means is that for nearly the entirety of the existence of dedicated comics retailer shops, people have not been shopping there on the biggest shopping day of the year. They're looking for sales and bargains, and are hitting the stores where those deals are advertised. Your Targets, Walmarts, Kmarts, etc. In the past few years, there's been a bit more support for shopping at local businesses on Black Friday, and I know I've seen some comics retailers promote this angle. Generally in more recent years than we've had "Cyber Monday" as a thing.

Where I'm going with all this is that the comics retail landscape has changed dramatically in the past several years. There was a radical shift when the direct market first came about, but things remained relatively stable afterwards. There was a slow trickling away from the newsstand model, but not so much as anyone really cared to worry about. But the past few years have seen things disrupted by not only digital sales generally, but some near-seizmic shifts in the overall shopping arena.

How a retailer might expect to survive in that kind of a market without keeping abreast of how things are changing is beyond me. And yet I still continue to see retailer after retailer just doing the same ol' thing they've always done. With no real sales or promotions, no noticeable attempts to lure in customers on Black Friday, nothing they might not do on any other given Friday. Not all comics retailers are like this, of course, but I'm just continually floored to see people -- even the ones who don't seem to have business background and/or sense -- miss out on huge shifts like we've seen in recent years.

Friday, November 21, 2014

On Strips: Cafe con Leche Ends, Part 2

Yesterday, I noted the recent ending of Charlos Gary's Cafe con Leche. That was mostly on the socio-racial implications of the ending of a strip featuring a mixed race couple. Today I'd like to take a few moments to look at the business end of things.

First off, let's make sure everyone's aware that Gary is not out of work. Back in September, he was hired by Charles Schwab as their Senior Director for Visual Communications.
Though he was understandably excited about the new gig, he that Cafe con Leche was coming to end not much later, if he didn't already know when he took the Schwab job. Note the dates on these two Tweets from him...
(That second Tweet translates as "I feel very sad today because my comic is ending" in case you're wondering.)

Gary's next Tweets are some minor clarifications and several "thanks for your support" messages. But the interesting one comes a couple weeks after the last strip was published.
That it might come back "albeit at another syndicate" points to the idea that Creators Syndicate is no longer willing to support the strip. It does not seem to be an issue bewteen Universal and Gary himself, as they're continuing to syndicate Gary's other strip, Working It Out. (Although it should be noted that that strip has been in reruns since April 2012.)
According to Wikipedia, Working It Out was only in 50 papers as of 2004. That's a seriously dated number, I realize, but I have to believe that's higher than what Gary was getting with Cafe con Leche. He noted on his blog several years ago that newspaper editors seemed leary of a comic featuring an interracial couple, and I'm led to believe that it's been an uphill battle since Day One.

So what it sounds like is that newspaper editors are uncomfortable testing the waters very much on the comics page. They'd rather have a more generic comic that they already ran four years earlier than a new one that deals with a nearly unique topic for comic strips. What choice would Creators Syndicate have but to drop the one that (one presumes) is costing them more money than it's earning?

But what does that say about the newspaper industry? By all accounts, newspaper circulation is in something of a death spiral and, rather than try anything new that might change things for good or ill, newspapers would rather go the "safe" route of keeping the status quo, which is all but guaranteed to end in oblivion.

And from a creator's perspective, why would you want to launch a new newspaper strip at this point? It's almost inevitably doomed to fail. At least launching it on the web provides some hope that it might be successful.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

On -isms: Cafe con Leche Ends

I don't think I've seen this come up in the regular comics press circles, and I'm a little irked that I missed it myself, but November 2 saw the last of Charlos Gary's newspaper strip, Cafe con Leche.
The strip followed the domestic adventures of Trey and Maria, a mixed race couple who navigated the traditional male/female stereotypes in comics as well as some of the complexities of coming from very different cultural backgrounds.

That was one of the last syndicated newspaper strips that featured a mixed race couple. Doonesbury (which I believe had a Caucasian/Asian couple) has been in reruns for over a year. Cory Thomas pulled Watch Your Head (which included a Black/Caucasian couple) from syndication to restart it as a webcomic a couple months ago. Boondocks has been gone nearly a decade now. Norm Feuti's Retail is the only noteable one left, I believe. There are some minor characters in Jump Start that are a mixed couple, but that's all I can think of/find. Other strips like Wee Pals do feature a diverse cast, but none of them are shown to be in a mixed race relationship. And certainly none of these strips highlighted it as well as Cafe con Leche.

Why is that significant?

According to the 2010 census, over 15% of all new marriages in the United States are of mixed race couples. A 2008 Pew Research survey suggested fully one third of Americans claimed to have a family member in an interracial marriage. And yet the representation of that in newspaper strips is virtually non-existent.

This is the age-old racial discussion of wanting to see people like me. Black people don't want to see a newspaper page full of comic strips about white folks without recognizing themselves anywhere. Same with Asians, Latinos, etc. You've heard this before. Seeing fictional characters that represent them allows people to consider possibilities that they might not be seeing in their immediate and current life.

The same idea holds for interracial relationships. How many people simply don't even consider dating (much less marrying) someone of a different race just because it never occurred to them that it was an option? How many people think that they have to get married to someone who looks like them because that's what their parents did? It's about opening up people to possibilities beyond what they're presented everywhere else.

There's a motivational quote from Henry Ford that goes, "Whether you think you can or you think you can't, you're right." And maybe that's a little overly optimistic (you can't breathe in a vaccum no matter how much you believe in your ability to do so) but people often accept what's presented to them as their only options, instead of asking if there's something else they hadn't considered. And it's people asking those kinds of questions that leads to progress.

I'll admit Cafe con Leche wasn't my favorite comic, but it was enjoyable. And while I don't personally know any Black men in a relationship with a Latina, I had a lot of respect for Gary for showing that as a possibility to so many people on a daily basis.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

On History: From Shadows to Light Review

I came across a copy of the Mort Meskin biography From Shadow to Light by Steven Brower in a used book shop. I'd heard Meskin's name before and had read enough old Vigilante stories to be vaguely familiar with his style, but I didn't know much more than that.

Not surprisingly, Brower's book shed a lot of light on Meskin for me. Both his personal life, as well as his professional career. And while that was a pretty low hurdle to jump, there was a lot in the book that told me Brower did more than his share of homework, talking to a number of friends and family members specifically for this book.

The book flowed pretty seamlessly through Meskin's life, with plenty of examples of his work, both in and out of comics. It was kind of heartbreaking to hear how much difficulty he had throughout much of his life, though it seems he conquered all of his personal demons eventually, and was able to enjoy his retirement. I'm left imagining what he could have accomplished, had he not had to deal with some of the emotional problems he did.

Despite clocking in north of 200 pages, it's a surprisingly quick read. Part of that stems from the number of art examples provided, but part of that is also attributable to Brower's casual and accessible writing style. I finished the book easily inside a week, only reading for a little before I went to sleep each night.

Meskin's relative obscurity today is unfortunate, given his talent. The book came out in 2010, but doesn't seem to have raised much awareness in the past few years, but I would recommend picking up a copy if you're able. Meskin was very talented, and it's a shame so few people know of him these days. Try not to be one of them.

Monday, November 17, 2014

On Business: Engagement

When I was a teenager, I judged a comic convention largely based on the comics I was able to find. Maybe I found a large run of a single title in a quarter bin, or I came across a rare issue that I needed to fill a hole in my collection. But an event's success, in my mind, was based on what I walked home with.

These days, whether or not I actually walk home with any books is almost immaterial. After all, I can find and purchase just about any comic I'm looking for online. I was just kicking around trying to track down the original Micronauts series, and found several people selling the entire run (plus the annuals, plus the second series) on eBay in one chunk. Or if I want to grab the first Howard the Duck run, it's even collected in a couple different formats now; I can order it from Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Powell's or any number of places.

What's more note-worthy to me these days is who I meet and interact with. Did I get a chance to talk with Jim Steranko or Warren Ellis? Did I get to meet a webcomic artist who I've talked with online, but never met in person? Did I hang out with some friends and all of us went out to dinner afterwards? A successful convention now is one where the dealers play second fiddle to the people who show up.

If you talk with people who study marketing trends and try to help businesses plan for the future, you might find one of the recent -- trends isn't really the right word; cultural directions, maybe? -- is more and more towards experience. That is, consumers don't just want a product, they want an experience. Oh, sure, I could order this do-dad from Amazon, but it would be much more fulfilling if I met the individual artisan who made one and was able to ask him specific questions about his process.

What does this mean for comics folks? It means you can no longer set up a table or booth at a show, and just sell stuff. This goes for retailers, publishers and creators. Marvel and DC have been pretty good about turning their con booths into event stations. I haven't seen any other publishers really do anything like that yet, though. It doesn't have to be at the scale Marvel and DC are at -- they have substantial cash flows behind them -- but just selling books out of the Dark Horse booth isn't going to cut it.

(To be fair, now that I think on it, I have seen Dark Horse and Zenescope and some other publishers have creator signings at their booths. The events don't have to be huge, walk-through, photo op displays.)

The same can be done at the retailer level as well. This past year, I saw a t-shirt vendor at a convention who normally does okay business. But this year, he was able to secure Taimak ("Bruce Leroy" from The Last Dragon) to sit at his booth and do signings all day. He had a much better show, and the two people I was with were exstatic to get pictures and autographs.

So what's a creator to do? Well, the engagement level is smaller, and thus should be more personal and intimate. This can be a little difficult as not everyone who walks up will feel comfortable chatting casually with a creator they don't know. They might be shy, or want to avoid feeling guilty for not buying something. But maybe there's still some opportunity to be had. Maybe just telling jokes to break the ice. Maybe taking pictures and celebrating others who do purchase something. Maybe it's an ongoing skit/play-acting that you're doing with someone also sitting at your booth.

The point is that consumers (i.e. the people who might be interested in buying your stuff) are looking for more than a simple financial transaction. If you're not giving it to them, the gal/guy in the booth next to you might.