Friday, April 18, 2014

On Strips: Brumsic Brandon Jr.

Astute and regular readers might be wondering why I'm not running my usual Friday "On Fandom" piece today. Since I've started up a column about fans and fandom over at FreakSugar this week (the first column is here), I'd save my fan content for that and switch my Fridays here to the topic of comic strips, which is frequently glossed over in broader discussions about comics in general.

So who is Brumsic Brandon, Jr.? I don't recall hearing the name until yesterday. It was in a collection of essays by Oliver Harrington, and he spoke a bit about Brandon's then-new book, Luther's Got Class from 1976. Here's an excerpt...
Today's comic strip artists dump more chauvinism, vicious racism, kinky sex, torture and horror into the inner recesses of American brain tissue—young and old—than any other known carrier of disease. Fortunately there are exceptions. One very great exception is Brusmic Brandon, Jr.

...Naturally, the artists are exceptionally talented and the financial rewards are exceptional—which of course makes Brandon even more exceptional because he's not only a brilliant cartoonist but also a Black one! Until his arrival, syndicate doors were firmly barred against Black cartoonists...

...The cartoonist is actually violating what has always been an American taboo, and that is to create non-white characters or even poor white characters who are human, sympathetic and even loveable. Brandon employs his irresistible humor to level the walls of racism. And what better stage setting could he devise than the schools and the kids they're trying to educate
I read that and thought, "Wow. How come I've never heard of this guy before?"

Well, that's partly because Harrington's assessment, strictly speaking, is a bit inaccurate. All the originality and barrier-breaking that he attributes to Brandon should in fact go to Morrie Turner and his Wee Pals, which debuted a few years before Luther. That's not to say Brandon's work is derivative or lacking in any way; it's just that no one remembers the second man who walked on the moon. (And to be fair to Harrington, he had been living in Germany for about 15 years when he wrote that summary; it's no surprise he hadn't heard of Turner.)

It appears that none of the Luther collections are in print, and in fact most of the used copies available through Amazon don't even have a generic cover image to look at. Neither Luther nor Brandon have entries in Wikipedia, not even stubs. A Google search on "Brumsic Brandon" turns up more info on his daughter Barbara than on him. The most I can find on him (at least online) is his entry on Lambiek:
Brumsic Brandon Jr. was born in Washington DC in 1927. He started his career in comics at an early age, submitting strips for mainstream publication since the early 1940s. He also made caricatures and cartoons, some of which were collected in 'Damned If We Do, and Damned If We Don't' in 1966. It wasn't until 1968 that he came up with 'Luther', a strip deliberately set in the working-class black ghetto and dealing less with race relations than with the universal human aspects of a child's struggle for survival.

With Luther, Brumsic Brandon was determined to "tell it like it is." The strip ran until June 1986, and his daughter Barbara Brandon, who would go on to create her own strip 'Where I'm Coming From', assisted him for a while. Brumsic Brandon is still an active cartoonist, columnist and avid traveler, always searching for new ideas.
Aside from the Luther collections, the only print work I can see on him is a reference in Black Images in the Comics: A Visual History, but the index says he's only mentioned on page 7, so I wouldn't expect anything expansive there. Seems to me that this is a big hole in comics research that needs to be plugged. Anyone want to try contacting this guy while he's still around?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

On -isms: The Other

Last year, I moved from southwest Ohio to just outside Chicago. The primary reason for the move was to be with my S.O. but it didn't hurt that Chicago has a thriving comics community. And (mainly) because of those two things, I have been incredibly happy up here. I mentioned to someone recently that I could count the number of bad days I've had since I moved up here on one hand, and even those were more just annoying than actually bad.

But then I've got a friend from back in Ohio who's not happy with my move. I've never asked, but I suspect it's for selfish reasons. Change of the status quo and all that. But I still keep in touch with him, and when I do, questions about Chicago inevitably come up. (I think he's had a layover or two in O'Hare, but he's never actually been to the city itself.) But the questions always seemed to be phrased in kind of a curious way. Curious in that they were about America's third largest city. With answers that can be read in the first couple paragraphs of Wikipedia's entry on Chicago if you hadn't gleaned them from, you know, hearing stuff. About things that really aren't at all uncommon for larger cities like, say, Cincinnati.

So I'm sitting here scratching my head over these questions, not because they're hard to answer, but because they're so ridiculously easy that the questions shouldn't even need to be asked. This isn't "how's life on an experimental Mars colony" despite the seeming tone and approach. It's not all that different from Miami or Minneapolis or San Diego or a hundred other cities across the U.S.

It wasn't until I was explaining my confusion to the S.O. and she clued me in. She pointed out that by acting as if Chicago was this strange and foreign land, it increases the sense of it being The Other. By focusing on the differences, you mute the similarities. Suddenly, it's no longer "a large Midwest city with a professional football team" but "that evil place that was taken over by Al Capone, and didn't the Black Panthers terrorize the city with a bunch of shoot-outs?"* You can justify hating the latter a lot more than the former because you've made it a very different place.

That's where these -isms come from. When you convince yourself that only 25% of the Eisner nominees being women, despite them making up half the population, is a great achievement, that's making them an Other. That rape threats are reserved exclusively for women in comics and not for men? That's making them an Other. When your employers blocks webcomics featuring gay people, regardless of the story content? That's making them an Other.

Making a person or group an Other puts them in a different category as you. It "forces" an Us versus Them binary situation. Which it totally isn't. Sure, there are differences between you and whoever you've labeled Other, but no more than those between you and your two-year-older brother. And sure, some of the comics that people whom you've labeled other create suck, but to no greater or lesser degree than anyone else's. People are people and just because you share some superficial trait with them doesn't make them part of "your team."

Whether you live in Cincinnati or Chicago, whether you're a man or woman, whether you're straight or gay, whether you're black or white, you're a person. Just like every other person on the planet. All those labels are superficial. Instead of doing a lot of mental gymnastics to make them all out to be Others, isn't it a hell of a lot easier to just treat everyone the same no matter where or how they live?

Though Capone was indeed involved in many illegal activities, he hardly ran the entire city and, in some ways, did more for the community than elected officials. Most of what you probably think you know about him is fiction from the movies. And the only real "shoot-out" the Black Panthers were involved in here was when police raided Fred Hampton's apartment, ruthlessly murdering him. Most of what you probably think you know about the event is fiction concocted by the police, and later largely disproven in courts and by reporters.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Links

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

On History: Jerry Lewis' Bat Lady

In the 1955 movie Artists and Models, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis portray a couple of guys working in the comic business. Martin is an artist, and Lewis is an accidental writer. Accidental in that he mumbles stories out loud while he's sleeping, and Martin's character uses them as plots for his comic work. Their main character is a superhero called Bat Lady, who quickly gains a Superman-level of success and we see any number of Bat Lady pieces of art throughout the film. Not only what Martin is working on, but the publisher's office sports a giant Bat Lady mural and the publisher himself wears a Bat Lady tie.

Except nowhere in the movie's credits does anyone actually receive a designation for creating the actual art. Arthur Camp and Neil Wheeler are given props credits in IMDB, but there's nothing in the movie itself.

Recently, Bonhams auction house announced that they had three pages of original art used as props from the movie.
They're crediting the work to either Camp or Wheeler, though I suspect that came from the same IMDB search I conducted.

Credits aside, it's fascinating to see how the artwork was laid out. (There's never a clear shot of the pages in the film.) Doubly-interesting to see is how two guys who weren't necessarily familiar with comic art production put togther the pages.

Curious aside: Two years later, Camp found himself creating props for another picture starring Lewis called The Sad Sack... based off the comic book character of the same name created by George Baker.

Monday, April 14, 2014

On Webcomics: Don't Forget to Bring Your New Audience Along Too!

When I was a kid in the 1980s, my dad bought a lot of independent comics. So when I finished the small collection of superhero comics I could afford at the time, I would move on to his books and read all these weird things that I wouldn't normally have had access to, or even known about, until years later.

I recall more than a few stories that bopped around from publisher to publisher for reasons I didn't understand at the time. Groo went from Pacific to Eclipse to Marvel, and eventually on to Image and then Dark Horse. Judge Dredd was at Eagle and Quality and Fleetway and SQP and DC -- now it's at IDW. There were others, but those are probably the most recognizeable that I recall.

I was lucky in that Dad was able to follow from one publisher to the next, so I would come to each publisher's version with an understanding of the characters and backstory. I'm sure not everyone else had that same luxury and, particularly with bigger publishers like Marvel and DC who had larger promotional budgets, many readers were seeing these for the first time. It's been a while since I've gone through and re-read any of them, but I suspect that in most cases, an editor was conscious of the fact that they were hitting a potentially new audience and they had to start fresh in many ways, providing new introductions for characters and such.

More recently, I've seen something similar in webcomics. What starts as a webcomic, for example, might get self-published in a trade paperback, and then go on to get picked up by a name publisher, and then sourced back to comiXology under the original creator's aegis. Offhand, I can think of PvP, I was Kidnapped by Lesbian Pirates from Outer Space and Runners that have done this to various degrees. Again, there are others, but I'm drawing a blank on them offhand.

But!

Those ones that I'm drawing a blank on? One of the reasons I'm drawing a blank, I think, is because I didn't find them as engaging. And the reason I didn't find them engaging? Because I didn't come across the original versions -- I came across one of the subsequent iterations and there was an implicit assumption that you had read everything that came before. I couldn't really get into the story because I couldn't follow what was going on.

So here's the thing: if you, as a webcomic creator, have an ongoing story that develops over an extended period, you can't make it so convoluted that new readers can't follow along. I understand that in webcomics, doing one page at a time is the norm, and you can only provide so much backstory in that amount of time, but you need to provide enough information as you're continuing the story to get new readers up to speed fairly quickly. I've stopped reading more than a few webcomics because I couldn't figure out what the basic plot was after several months. The storytelling on individual pages was fine, and I could follow what was happening easily enough, but the larger context what was driving all the characters, what the overarching conflict was, was never communicated.

And that is a big problem!

Depending on the story and the plot, there's no one easy answer to say how often a creator should reiterate critical plot details, but I'm thinking once every chapter (however "chapter" is defined in a given webcomic). If, as a creator, you're not doing that, I think there's a more than fair chance that you're alienating readers who come to your story from somewhere other than the original venue.

Friday, April 11, 2014

On Fandom: What's in a Collection?

Let's say you had zero comics. Maybe you read them as a kid and gave them up years ago, but after seeing the Captain America movie, you decide you might want to see what they're like these days. A combination of nostalgia and curiosity. So you go into a bookstore and pick up one of the trades. Now you have one graphic novel. You'd hardly call that a collection, would you? You can't have a collection of one.

But let's say you really liked what you read. So you go back to the store and pick up another book. (That makes two for any of you who are mathematically challenged.) Is that a collection? Probably not.

You get a third book. Then a fourth. And a fifth...

At what point do these individual books become a collection? Certainly by the time you get to, say, a hundred. But how many define it as a collection?

Is it even a set number? Is it, instead, a percentage of the overall possible? It doesn't count as a collection until you have, say, 20% of all the Captain America books out there. If that were the case, would you count just Captain America trades or include the comics as well? And if you include the comics, would that be all of the series, including Captain America Comics from the 1940s?

And at what point does it go from a graphic novel collection to a Captain America collection? When you get a Cap action figure? Or a movie poster? How much Captain America stuff do you need beyond the comics to qualify as a collection?

Or, as yet another alternative, is it more of a mindset? Does it not count as a collection at all if you don't care about Captain America and just inherited a bunch of books from an uncle who passed away? Conversely do two items make it a collection if you're really, really, really, really into them? Is it more about intent than realization?

I think that's really the key: intent. Not everyone has the same resources to get all the same stuff. Consider what you were able to get as a 10 year old compared to what you can get now. You almost certainly have more resources now, and probably a much greater number of comics than you did then. But that doesn't make your 10 year old self's collection any less valid! Because you were still out there, trying to get what you could with whatever meager finances you had. Just like you're still trying to get whatever you can with whatever finances you have, meager or not.

Something to dwell on when you find yourself comparing your collection to someone else's.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

On -isms: Same As It Ever Was?

Way back in 2009, I reviewed Valerie D'Orazio's then-new book: Memoirs Of An Occasional Superheroine. She was selling it as an e-book, and it told her story up until a couple years prior to the book's original publication. Today, after more or less letting the book languish, she put it back out into the ether with a brand new Kevin Colden cover. And she's giving it away for free.

So what? Dozens of comics and comic-related books come out ever week; why should you pay attention to this one, even if it's free?

She noted yesterday...
And in the years since I wrote the memoir, I tried to stay on the positive side about Women in Comics. That perhaps things would—and was—only going to get better.

But it has not gotten better. My news/Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr feed is regularly stocked with stories about how it is not getting better... women are still woefully under-represented in “mainstream” comics, and stories of sexual harassment of females at publishers, by creators, at conventions, and so on continue and continue and continue.
The book is not about sexism. It's a memoir in the truest sense of the word, so it's D'Orazio talking about her experiences growing up and entering the comic industry, and how she felt about it. BUT, she's still a woman in the comic industry, and she's had more than her share of sexual harassment and discrimination, particularly in the DC Comics offices.

D'Orazio again...
While it focuses on one publisher in particular, it should be kept in mind that this book was written five years ago about situations taking place more than ten years ago. That said, issues like the ones described in this book are still going on... in many places. That has been the main motivation in putting this back up. In addition to the many articles I’ve read on this topic since 2009, I’ve had countless women and men tell me stories in private about sexism, sexual harassment and under-representation of females in this industry. It is beyond any level of acceptable.
Sure, you hear these individual anecdotes about that one particularly lude jackass at a convention, or maybe an unconfirmed instance where a perfectly talent female artist was passed over because her style wasn't butch enough, or whatever. But what Memoirs shows (among many other things) is the persistent, nearly perpetual, sexism in the industry as a whole. From retailers to publishers to creators. The book showcases just how completely endemic the problem is, which goes a way to explaining why it's not something that's been solved yet, despite the greater spotlight it's been given lately by various comics media outlets.

D'Orazio doesn't provide any clear answers on the issue. It's not the point of the book, and I doubt there are any simple solutions anyway. (Well, practical solutions. It's seemingly obvious enough to say, "Well, just have everyone treat everyone else with basic human dignity and respect," but that's not exactly something you can act on very readily.) But I think that highlighting the problems as D'Orazio does in her book can at least expose some of the problems that need to be addressed and why. It's essentially the same reason I started this weekly "On -isms" column here: by making it a regular part of everybody's general discourse, it raises awareness at a long-term level. And that raised awareness can make people give another thought about how/why they might be part of the problem instead of part of the solution.

Go read D'Orazio's post and then download her book from there.