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You've heard about how Denver ComicCon hosted a panel about women in comics that featured exactly no women, right? I think the consensus on this one is pretty easily, "Boy, that was dumb as shit!" I mean, this seems obvious, right? I'm not going to belabor that point; it's been made repeatedly elsewhere.
Trina Robbins

Here's the part I want to talk about: the Denver ComicCon's response.

Let me start by reminding everyone that most conventions don't actually set up too many panels on their own. It's creators and fans who come to the show organizers and say, "I'd like to host a panel on X." The show then looks at all the requests, sizes them up, and gives a yay or nay to each one. It's then up to the person(s) who made the request to develop content and wrangle other panelists. So when a women in comics panel was suggested, I'm sure DCC said, "Yeah, that's a good idea" but did not know at that time who all the panelists might be.

Now, you could argue that they might have done more due diligence or follow-up, or that someone should have caught the problem when the program schedule was being written up and printed (with all the panelists' names) but I'm sure there was nothing glaringly wrong with the initial pitch. As far as I can tell, the show organizers weren't being that mind-bogglingly obvlivious, they just focused on other aspects of the show and assumed the people running that panel would take care of things. It seems more like a failure of oversight and/or coordination than anything else.

Jackie Estrada
The problem I have with DCC, though, is in their response. You can read it in the link above, but the short version is that they not only assumed zero responsibility, but they doubled down and defended the panel's lack of women. They even went so far as to say that "the panel was not about current women creators" and then in the very same paragraph quote the panel description which says, "Includes an introduction to many of the female illustrators/creators attending the convention."

That is absolutely, unequivacably the wrong response.

There are essentially two schools of thought when you're responding to a public screw-up like this. There's the lawyer approach, and the PR approach. The lawyer approach is to make sure that nothing you say can be used against you. Don't admit culpability, don't admit responsibility, don't even admit there's a problem if you possibly can. That way, if you're taken to court, no one can use any statements you made outside of court to lead to a guilty verdict. You're basically pleading the 5th Ammendment.

The problem with this is that, unless you're actually likely to face criminal charges, you look like a complete ass. I mean, you still look like an ass if you are facing possible prosecution, but people at least understand why you're trying to bend over backwards to deny reality. But if you're not in legal trouble, this lawyer approach does nothing positive for you. You look like a kid who's standing there with his hand stuck in a now-broken cookie jar still clutching a cookie and saying, "I didn't do it."

The PR approach comes at it from the other direction by directly owning up to things. You not only admit that there was a problem, but you take responsibility for it -- even if it's not directly your fault -- and go on to suggest things you'll attempt in the future to ensure it doesn't happen again. It suggests that the problem came about out of ignorance, not ill intent, and that you're trying to recitfy things. It ends your part of the conversation on an optimistic and positive tone, so not only will you not be ridiculed for the linguistic gymnastics that you have to conduct in the lawyer approach, but people will be hard-pressed to take too a negative view of someone who's openly trying to do better.

And, hey, funnily enough, it means things actually get better too! Both for how people view the convention itself, as well as all the attendees who are able to get a better set of panels on diversity!
  • This is a little over a week old, but I don't think I saw it linked to: Ben Towle recently purchased a Leroy Lettering Set, and has begun experimenting with it.
  • Also from last week, but not seemingly reported anywhere but on Comics Alliance, the winners of the Glyph Awards have been announced.
  • Finally, surprising absolutely no one, a statistical analysis of The New Yorker cartoons finds that they feature OVERWHELMINGLY white male characters. You kind of already knew that, I'm sure, but it's absurd just how skewed they are when you look at the numbers.
You know the backstory to the original Secret Wars, right? It was about as cynically conceived idea as any in comics; Mattel approached Marvel to do a series in support of a toy line they wanted, and many of the high concepts came about from focus group testing. Like using the words "secret" and "war" in the title, updating Dr. Doom's armor to be less medieval-looking, that sort of thing.

Secret Wars #1
So Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter took all these ideas, and wrapped them up in a simple plot: lots of the Marvel villains battle lots of the Marvel heroes. There was the Beyonder there to provide some coceited impetus but, really, the plot is absurdly thin. Almost to the point of non-existent. In many ways, it was basically fan-service. "You want to see everybody fight everybody else? Here's twelve issues of it!"

I did pick up the first three issues when it first came out, and several of the issues where the heroes were swept off to this "Battleworld." But I didn't have regular, reliable transportation to get to a comic shop at the time and I didn't read the rest of the story until several years later. All I knew was that a lot of heroes disappeared, and returned shortly afterwards... except now the Thing had been inexplicably replaced by She-Hulk in my favorite title.

As I'm sitting here reflecting on the series, I'm struck by how very character-driven it was. Reed Richards' concern for his pregnant wife left back home, Dr. Doom's disregard for the Beyonder's instruction in favor of trying leverage the situation for himself, the justifiable suspicion the X-Men had for non-mutants, the Human Torch's "yeah, we do this type of thing all the time" reassurances to Spider-Man, the challenges Bruce Banner faced in keeping his intellect in charge of the Hulk... Every writer naturally has a slightly different spin on the characters, but Shooter did a good job of ensuring that every character was individually motivated based on their own characteristics and previously displayed personality traits. That made for a good read despite an absurdly weak premise.

Now, it's been a couple years since I've read any of the big event stories from either Marvel or DC, but the last several that I did go through came at things from a polar opposite direction. The events were designed to carry through a very strong story premise -- in the case of the current Secret Wars, reshaping the very Marvel Universe itself -- but what I've found lacking is the characterization. The heroes react to things because the story needs someone to fill a role, not necessarily because there's a driving force behind the character. In most cases, the characters don't suddenly start acting wildly out of character, but their reactions and dialogue ring hollow because they're acting without agency. We see characters, for example, acting sad because a comrade has fallen, but their grief is uniformly expressed. There's no difference regardless of how well one character knew another, what other stress factors might be in their background, what religious beliefs (in any) they ascribe to...

I'm actually kind of reminded of the old DC books from the 1950s and '60s where the heroes were heroes because they were heroes. There were no Uncle Ben moments, just heroes putting on costumes and fighting crime because that's what one does. And the only difference between Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter and the Flash was their power set.

Which is fine if you want to make simple stories that are meant to be obtained cheaply, read, and discarded without thought. And while I get not every writer is out there trying to make their comics into deeply profound, lasting works of high art, I think it's worth noting the success with which a heavily focus-grouped, blatant marketing ploy led to a more memorable series compares against the ostensibly writer-driven ideas that lead event comics today.
I've been reading comics since before I can remember. From what I've been able to piece together, my parents were visting with some friends shortly after their second daughter was born. My brother was still an infant, and I was about four. Evidently, to keep me entertained (i.e. quiet) my parents' friend handed me a stack of maybe 50 comics he had lying around. They dated from about five years earlier when he would occasionally buy one to read on his lunch break. Well, they obviously had me pretty mesmerized as I'm still reading comics several decades later.

Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe #1
I bought what comics I was able throughout my childhood, but obviously a child's limited income meant I was picking up much. I think I managed to get somewhere around 500 comics by the time I was sixteen. And then the brother of a good friend passed away unexpectedly, and my friend decided it was time he grew up and pack away his childhood. So one day, he showed up on my doorstep with a pair of suitcases filled with his comics collection. There was a lot of X-Men and Avengers, plus the incredibly valueable (from an intellectual capital perspective) Marvel Handbook. My collection roughly doubled overnight.

Cut to around a decade-and-a-half later. I'd been in the work force for several years, and had some more disposable income to put towards comics. I'd gotten my collection up to around 6000 issues. In talking with my father, he noted that he was trying to clear out his basement and wanted to get rid of a lot of his comics. He was going to keep some that he really liked to re-read, but he figured he could get rid of the stuff that he was certain he'd never look at again. He offered them up to me. A couple of cross-state car trips later, I found that my collection had roughly doubled once again, this time with a lot of smaller press books from 1980s.

Early last year, Dad mentioned he was doing another basement clearing and offered me all of his graphic novels. That doubled my graphic novel collection. Another friend of mine came across a box full of late Golden Age books in his mother's attic that he offered up to me. A couple weeks back, I mentioned the six long boxes I found on the curb; what I didn't mention here was that I found another six boxes the following week.

Where I'm going with this is that, if you include books that I received for birthdays and holidays, as comp and review copies, and as things I've won in contests, I think I've only paid for around 30-35% of my entire collection. Of course, the precise number is always in a state of flux -- a month ago, before I found those comics by the curb, it would've been more like 45% -- but since Day One, I've always had a noticeable chunk of my collection that had been gifted to me.

I still actively pursue and buy comics with my own funds. Naturally, if I had never shown enough interest in comics to spend what money I could on them, people would have stopped giving me comics ages ago. But it obviously wouldn't be very reliable to count on comics as gifts, much less expect to get the stories I'm most interested in reading. And I try to do at least some level of reciprocation. I often give out comics at Halloween instead of candy, and a number of relatives have gotten comics of one form or another for their birthdays and/or Christmas over the years.

But I find myself wondering how much of the comics industry is built on gifting? Clearly, there's a high level of purchasing going on. Even if I personally didn't buy most of my comics, someone paid for them. But I'm reminded of the old notion from the 1940s where kids shared and traded comics with one another. To the point where publishers frequently claimed their readership was 3-4 times higher than their sales numbers. I'm seeing a different dynamic going on now, with infrequent exchanges of larger collections rather than weekly exchanges of single issues, but the idea isn't dissimilar.

How much comics gifting is going on today in 2015? Are your collections made up with decent chunks of comics you've received for free? Have you donated parts of your collection as you made space in your home? How isolated/unique are my experiences here? I'd love any input.
Here's a curious find from ebay: a series of watches from Sutton Time featuring characters from various King Features comics. In the mid-1980s, Sutton evidently licensed the rights to use Nancy, Blondie, Hagar the Horrible, Hi & Lois, Robot Man, and Beetle Bailey on a line of watches...
Beetle Bailey Watch
Blondie Watch
Hagar the Horrible Watch
Hi & Lois Watch
Nancy Watch
Robot Man Watch
The whole idea seems to stem from the "Comic Times" name that's kind of a pun, but not a very good one. As you can see, the bands all feature a variety of non-sequential panels, with another on the watch face itself. My guess is that choosing random panels was to get them to fit on the band. Most are in color, but Robot Man is not for some reason. It's also the only one to feature the logo/name of the strip. The copyright on it is two years earlier than the others, so it might be a preliminary run.

Kind of an odd marketing piece, but there are stranger ones out there, I suppose. But here's the thing that really bugs me about these, though. The only panel that you would be able to read while using the watch in a naturalistic way (i.e. on your left wrist with your arm bent at a right angle so you can read the time) is the one on the face. The others would be sideways when you look at the watch normally. But worse yet, there's no way you could read the panels right-side up while wearing one of these! If you held your arm up parallel to your body, the comics would all be upside-down! You'd have to really twist the hell out of your arm to read those panels. Unless the idea is to just show it off to other people who would be looking at it from the other direction? But how often would you do that?

How many people had to approve these, and how did no one catch this? It's not like it would be overly difficult to fix, just rotate the art.

On a curious side note, the Nancy watch with a series of random panels pre-dates Scott McCloud's idea for Five Card Nancy by over a decade!
Many people, myself included, have talked about the banality of newspaper comic strips. The very context of the strips almost inherently means that cartoonists can't do anything too edgy for fear of alienating readers. So nearly everything you read on the funny pages is incredibly broad in its scope, and often not very original. Rina Piccolo of Tina's Groove was commenting on this just last week. You get jokes like the ones you see in Hi and Lois or Born Loser or Garfield. They were mildly amusing the first time you read them a couple decades ago, but not even that much any more.

Editorial cartoonists, by contrast, usually have a bit more bite to them. They're designed to speak directly to current events and are expressly made for the sake of social commentary. But that's why they're not included in with all the other newspaper comics.

But then I posted a link to this strip on my Facebook page...
It's Tuesday's The Knight Life by Keith Knight. Pointed commentary on the current discussions of race in America. And it dawned on me that's not the first time I've posted one of Knight's comics on Facebook because of the social commentary. Here's some others from the past few months...
Now, he still does his share of "safe" jokes...
... he still does his "Life's Little Victories" and "Creepiest Guy in the World" bits, and he still shows his wife being terrified of spiders and the cute antics of his kids. But he continues dropping in these very pointed and poignant strips about race. It's almost as if he's getting his editorial comic, (Th)ink, mixed up with syndicated-in-the-newspapers one.

Which I'm not mad at! I'm thrilled that this kind of cartooning can get out there in what everyone thinks of as a tepid space. It can get a positive message out to those people who wouldn't ordinarily be receptive to it. Darrin Bell does that to some extent in Candorville, too, but I frankly haven't been reading it long enough to see how barbed he can get compared to Knight.

So what I'm curious about here is how these strips get past the syndicate editors and the newspaper editors onto the printed page? Aren't these precisely the types of strips that newspaper readers are likely to complain about? I can't imagine that Knight hasn't offended large swaths of newspaper readers. Are people not complaining? Or are the complains so blatantly racist that they're dismissed out of hand?

I used to wonder how Zippy the Pinhead remains syndicated. Now that I think about, I'm more baffled how Knight Life is.
Apologies for missing yesterday, but I'm running more than a little behind on my writing this week. Now for this week's links...
Atena Farghadani
  • Deejay Dayton has a history/summary of Cliff Cornwall, an obscure Golden Age DC hero.
  • Mahsa Alimardani of PRI looks at Atena Farghadani and her impending trial for drawing a cartoon criticizing Iran's leaders for restricting access to contraception.
  • Mellanie Gillman noted that she enjoys "digging through obscure newspaper archives looking for evidence of pre-1900s queers." She drew this comic of a couple from the late 1880s, and she just posted another about a queer stagecoach robber that you can see if read if you support her on Patreon.