Tuesday, September 23, 2014

On History: Comic Book Protection Cover System

Trolling around in the patent database, I came across the patent for a "comic book protection cover system" from 1993. It's basically a zip-loc bag, sized for modern comics, with a pocket on the front to put in a small sheet with whatever details you think are relevant. Supposedly, this "has all the advantages of the prior art bags and none of the disadvantages."

I'm a bit dubious, frankly. Although in large part because of the lousy wording in the document. He has four one-sentence paragraphs in a row that begin...
Still yet another object of the present invention...

Still another object of the present invention...

Yet another object of the present invention...

Even still another object of the present invention...
But who am I to judge? John and Cindy Merkley have a patent, and I don't.

Here are the full specs of Patent #5,415,290...

Monday, September 22, 2014

On Business: The Future of the Niche

When mass media started, who was able to reach out with it was fairly limited. It reached a wide audience -- hence the name "mass" media -- but the number of people who contributed to the messages going out was decidedly finite. The issue was that, although media had become cheap enough to produce products that individually cost fairly little, they only worked ecomonically from economies of scale. That is, you could only sell comics for a dime if you printed and sold 500,000 of them. If you only produced one copy, that copy would probably cost a couple hundred bucks, thanks to color separations, plate production, etc. (That's why those handful of Golden Age ashcans that have been found are in black and white. It was cost-prohibitive to do them in color, particularly when they were only produced to secure a copyright.) This meant that the only people who were producing content were those who could afford to purchase publishing houses or TV stations or whatever.

(It would be more accurate to say "the only people who were approving content to be produced..." After all, many publishers weren't actually writing the stories themselves. Guys like Martin Goodman and Jack Liebowitz didn't actually write the comics they published! But the only reason Superman saw widespread distribution was because the folks at National paid Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to create it. If they hadn't, the very first story might still be sitting in an abandoned desk in Cleveland, only having been seen by a handful of people.)

But technology has improved to the point where production costs have gone down considerably on the overall production level, to the point where individuals with a relatively small amount of funds can publish "professional grade" material on their own. Look at all these Kickstarter projects where they publishing thousand-book runs of a graphic novel for under $10,000. Or print-on-demand books that can be published in quantities as low as one, for a per-unit price that's maybe only a third higher than what a traditional print run might be. These are technological/economic changes -- radical ones -- that have really only occurred in the past 15 or so years.

I figure that's going to continue. There will be continued technological advances (that should pretty obvious to everyone, I hope) and those will continue to drive down the costs of producing small scale media ventures. I don't know exactly what form that might take, but at an abstract level, we only need to focus on the idea that it will become even cheaper for comic creators to get their work into people's hands.

And that means that even more people will be producing comics. Which means, simply, more comics. We're seeing some of that already. How many times do you see books you've never even heard of, much less read, nominated for major comic awards? That's going to become even more pronounced. We're not far off, if we're not there already, that most people, even if they can afford to buy all the comics they want, don't have the time to read everything they're "supposed" to in order to keep abreast of the industry.

Which, in turn, means that instead of people looking and discussing comics writ large, fans will, by necessity, increasingly focus on niches within comics. And that, I think, is where the industry is headed. It will become increasingly fragmented, as it's cheaper and easier to cater to smaller niche groups, and we'll see less and less relevance in comics that attempt to appeal to broad audiences. I doubt those broad audience comics will go away entirely, but they'll become less interesting. They may well continue to be discussed, as common ground for a wide number of people, but their significance to the medium will be only that of a broad point of reference. It's the niche material that will be dicussed with more conviction and consideration.

Something to keep in mind if you're hoping to make a future career in comics.

Friday, September 19, 2014

On Strips: The 1995 Comics Umbrella(s)

The big image tied to this post is of an umbrella created in 1995, featuring a number of comic strips and emblazened with "San Jose Mercury News." I seem to recall seeing this on ebay several years back, and stumbled across another one again yesterday. I got to wondering what the deal was here. Was this made as a promotion for the paper itself, or perhaps one from Universal Press Syndicate made for the newspaper? I did some searching online, and wound up more confused.

Here's the problem. If you start searching on comic strip umbrellas made in 1995, you find all sorts of them with different newspapers' names on them. The Oklahoman, The Tulsa World, The Denver Post, The Daily Chronicle, The Kansas City Star... And they all have diffent specifications. Different sizes are given, some have metal handles while some have wood, different comics are represented and how they're represented varies...

But they all seem to have been maufactured in 1995 for newspapers in the American Southweast. And most of them seem to be made by a Chinese company called Hot Off the Press Productions. Does anyone know what's the story behind these? I can't seem to find anything online.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

On -isms: Why It Matters

So the question that comes up is: why does it really matter what Marvel, DC, Archie, Dark Horse, etc. publish with regards to showing equality/parity in their books? If someone wants to read about and identify with some minority group, they can comics about them online. And, also, if the majority of those publishers' audience is Caucasian, why shouldn't their stories reflect that?

Let's set aside the why-is-this-still-a-difficult-concept-to-grasp idea that maybe minorities want to see more characters that reflect themselves in comics. Let's also set aside the dumb-foundingly obvious business notion of being able to sell comics to those minorities more easily. There's long been an arguement that discussions about these issues in comics, even if they are presented as allegories, helps to broaden readers' minds and perceptions in the real world. That sounded all warm and fuzzy, but it was largely based on vague anecdotal evidence. But we now have proof that it works.

Psychologists Loris Vezzali and Reggio Emilia recently did a study of people who grew up reading the Harry Potter books. What they found was that reading the series helped improve readers' attitudes toward stigmatized groups, such as immigrants, gays and refugees. While many of those issues don't sound like ones that are addressed directly, you might recall that there is a decidedly negative stigma attached to characters who look down on Muggles, Half-Bloods, and the like. It's not just that those groups are singled out but that, "Harry has meaningful contact with characters belonging to stigmatized groups. He tries to understand them and appreciate their difficulties, some of which stem from intergroup discrimination, and fights for a world free of social inequalities."

My first thought was that this sounded more than a little like the classic premise of the X-Men. Except the X-Men are the perecuted minority, having to fight for themselves. Their champions are within their own group, and they (generally) don't have any from the outside lending their support. In the Harry Potter universe, Harry is one of the priveledged elite fighting on behalf of the outsiders.

This can be a dangerous course to navigate, because it's easy to show the protagonist as a "White Savior" character. Perhaps key to Harry's distinction is that, as pointed out, he's very empathetic to their situations and fights not just on their behalf, but the behalf of all groups.

I noted back in 2007 some of the thematic similarities between Harry Potter and Spider-Man. I still think much of the first Tobey Maguire movie's success was parlayed off the back of the Potter franchise. Anyway, the notion of openness and tolerance is ripe for the picking in Spider-Man, but has largely been ignored. Peter Parker was initially very much an outcast character, and that's a large part of why he became so popular. And though he does gain powers to put him into a more elite group, and uses those powers to help the less fortunate, what is usually missing is the attempt to understand and appreciate the plight others are actually going through. He'll save little old ladies from purse-snatchers, and stop Electro and Rhino from reigning chaos on New York, but his actions are out of guilt and a general sense of doing the right thing, and there's little/no thought given to helping a class of individuals. Spider-Man's not out to make things fair for everybody, he just wants to keep the bad guys from hurting innocents.

But getting back to the study, Vezzali and Emilia have shown that there is indeed a very positive correlation between reading stories that include messages of tolerance, and having those messages reflected in the readers' own personalities. And while this is only one study, focused on one set of books, it strikes me as a very compelling case as to why it's vitally important to promote the same messages of tolerance -- about race, about gender, about sexuality, about... -- in comics. Because even though the Harry Potter books have widely outsold Spider-Man's, those comic characters still resonate with a lot of people!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Links

  • Keidra Chaney talks about Black characters in science fiction: "There’s a scene in Guardians of the Galaxy, early on in one of the cities, where I spied one of the people in the crowd, a black woman with a teeny weeny afro, and did a little dance of joy in my seat. 'We’re here!' I thought! 'We exist in the far reaches of outer space!'"
  • By contrast, Ricardo A. Hazell doesn't seem to like "the browning of US comic books."
  • In preparation for Banned Books Week, Susan Dunne spoke with David Hajdu in advance of his appearance at the Hartford Public Library next week.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

On History: Warka Vase Still a Question Mark

Back in 2008 and again in 2010, I noted here about the theft/damage done to the oldest known surviving piece of comic art: the Warka Vase. The short version is that our G.W.'s war on Iraq left the Iraqi Museum open to looting, and this artifact went missing, but was eventually returned in 14 pieces.

So, here it is, six years after I first mentioned it, eleven years after it first went missing, and there's essentially no news on it whatsoever. In fact, there's almost no news on the Iraqi Museum; as near as I can tell, their website stopped being updated in late 2011 and has since gone completely dark. There's a couple of notes about a few hundred more artifacts being returned in the past few years, but I can't seem to find what's been done with any of them.

The person who was director of the Musuem back when the Iraq War started and who helped to bring back several thousand artifacts after the looting was a man by the name of Donny George. After recovering the Warka Vase, he was forced to flee the country in 2006 after receiving death threats. He took up residence in New York, acting as a visiting professor at Stony Brook University. He died of a heart attack in 2011.

So, ultimately, after following the adventures of the world's oldest surviving comic for most of a decade now, nothing is known about its current state. We don't know where it is, what condition it's in, whether it's been repaired or broken further, when anyone might see it again... nothing. The latest info we have on the Warka Vase dates back to 2003.

I wish there were something I could report on here, but it's just locked away somewhere. No one even really knows what shape it's in. It's just a shake-my-head-sad kind of item that a pointless, wrong-headed-from-the-start war can lead to the destruction of invaluable articles like this so casually.

Monday, September 15, 2014

On Business: Why the FF Aren't Important Right Now

As you may know, I'm a loooooong time Fantastic Four fan. I had my first letter printed in that comic back in 1988, and I ran the FFPlaza.com website for over a decade. I've had Marvel writers and editors ask me for assistance in making sure they had obscure details correct, and I've gotten a few official credits because of that. I've gotten more than a couple writing assignments precisely because of my interest in the FF.

Which I use as a preface to say that I am a big fan of the FF. I think it's great concept and, when written well, makes for some incredible stories.

But I've seen a few others recently lament how the FF are being treated by Marvel's marketing these days. How they're not well represented in crossovers, how they're not prominently featured (if they're indeed featured at all) in general merchandise, and -- the most recent offense -- that they're barely mentioned in Marvel's 75th Anniversary magazine. Some of the FF fans I know are railing against this treatment, and consider it more than a slight against the team, especially in light of the new movie coming out next year.

The problem, though, is that these fans, it seems to me, are thinking tactically. Marvel owns the Fantastic Four, which is a decades-proven intellectual property, and therefore should put some of their resources to ensuring that brand gets and stays out in the marketplace. Like they've done with The Avengers. Even if they're not promoting The Avengers, they're pushing Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Agents of SHIELD or something that ties back to that base property. They've even started "hinting" about crossing over with Guardians of the Galaxy. And that all makes sense from a marketing perspective. So why not do the same with the FF?

Because Marvel, at the moment, has a more strategic plan for the FF. One that involves the FF movie not doing so well. At least, compared to the various Avengers properties.

Do you know why the aliens in The Avengers were Chitauri and not Skrulls? Because part of the Fantastic Four license that Fox has includes a variety of FF villains like Dr. Doom, Galactus and the Skrulls. Legally, Marvel Studios can't use Skrulls. And they won't be able to use Skrulls until Fox's option to extending the license runs its course. But it won't run its course if Fox continues to produce Fantastic Four films.

Most licensing contracts establish a time limit on their usefulness. You can license a character for a certain period of time, and if you do nothing with that character in that timeframe, the contract expires. But if you do do something, you're often able to take advantage of a clause that says you're free to renew the license for a period of years past the original expiration. This is basically a way for the property owners to ensure that they're not losing potential income; if a licensee does nothing with the character, the licensor is freed up to take the character to someone else who will earn some money from it.

So Marvel's gambit here is to not help promote the characters that are licensed by another company. The hope, I think, is that, with fewer marketing efforts put towards an FF film, it will not be as successful a movie for Fox. If it's not a successful movie -- or at least not as successful as they'd like compared to other films starring Marvel characters -- Fox will eventually let the license expire rather than renew it. And once it expires, the rights would revert back to Marvel and the FF could be wrapped into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It's not about using Chitauri instead of Skrulls. That's a minor point, really. It's about the broad license for the Fantastic Four and all the ancillary characters that are detailed in that contract: the FF themselves, Galactus, Silver Surfer, Mole Man... Is it a big deal if Frankie Raye doesn't make a cameo in the next Guardians of the Galaxy movie? No. But Marvel, I'm sure, does not want to limit themselves any more than is necessary, and would no doubt prefer to bring all of their characters back under one licensing roof. So they're, quite frankly, hoping the next FF movie does poorly precisely so they can hit that longer-term, strategic goal.

"That's very clever, but if you're so smart, how come they're not doing that with Spider-Man too?"

That's a little trickier for Marvel because that particular character has been so closely associated with the Marvel brand for so long. Marvel is Spider-Man is Marvel. They can't really ignore Spider-Man in the same way. But if you'll notice, Marvel has spent a lot of time trying to bring the comics versions of their characters closer to their cinematic counterparts... but only for the characters Marvel Studios can use. They bent over backwards to make sure the Nick Fury in Marvel comics looks like Samuel L. Jackson, but there's been zero effort to even change Spider-Man's costume to more closely resemble Andrew Garfield's. So while they can't exactly dismiss their corporate mascot of the past half-century, they're not going to contribute to someone else's cinematic success with the character.

So, ultimately, that's why there's been seemingly so little love for the Fantastic Four at Marvel. It's part of a larger strategy to bring their movie versions back in house. And with the raging success they've had with the Avengers, they don't even have to concern themselves with not having a central team to rally their comic stories and crossover events around.