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Here are this week's links to what I've had published recently...

Kleefeld on Comics: On Business: Presidential Impact

Kleefeld on Comics: On History: Byrne's Generations Review

Kleefeld on Comics: Weekly Comics Links

FreakSugar: Wednesday Webcomics: Scalability

Kleefeld on Comics: On -isms: Bass Reeves Review

Kleefeld on Comics: On Strips: The Comic Strip Murder

The TV show Suspense debuted in early 1949 on CBS on ran for six seasons. It was an anthology series based on a radio show where each episode presented an entirely different story, related only by the broad "suspense" genre. The TV show was sponsored by Auto-Lite, and host Rex Marshall regularly hawked spark plugs, headlights, and other car parts. Several stories (particularly early in the series) were adapted from the radio show, while several others were lifted from the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, Agatha Christie, and Charles Dickens.

Of particular interest here is the September 27, 1949 episode entitled "The Comic Strip Murder." In the story, Julia Stetson's husband, Mark, draws an adventure strip called Buzz O'Keefe, which seems to be something of Dick Tracy knock-off. The female lead in the strip is based off Julia, and after nine years of working on the strip, Mark decides he's going to kill off the character in a particularly gruesome manner. This convinces Julia that Mark is out to kill her as well, so she calls on the police. I'll leave you in "suspense" about what actually happens in the story...

But one of the things I find interesting about these types of works is that they have to show at least some samples of the comic in question. And, more to the point, they have to get someone to draw them. So I watched through the episode to see if I could make out any tell-tale markers of who might have worked on it -- I was skeptical, though, and went in assuming it was whoever was already working on the show and could kind of draw a bit. So imagine my surprise when the end credits actually featured a credit for the cartoonist! And imagine that I was doubled surprised to see a name I recognized: Dick Ayers!

Ayers is probably primarily known as an inker from the early days of Marvel Comics, but he had been in the comics industry for many years as a penciller by then, doing a lot of work on Westerns for Timely/Atlas. Including the creation of the original Ghost Rider. He would later have an extended run on Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos beginning in 1963.

But in 1949, at the age of 25, he was only a couple years out of school and had already begun working in comics, getting his start with Dell Comics. In fact, his original Ghost Rider character debuted in Tim Holt #11 (from Magazine Enterprises) shortly before "The Comic Strip Murder" aired. I can't seem to find any information about how he landed the TV gig, but I suspect it was through some connection editor Vin Sullivan had.

There's not much of Ayers' work shown in this episode, but certainly enough to showcase that he was already an extremely talented artist...
A few months back, I reviewed Joel Christian Gill's biography of Bessie Stringfield. I was certainly encouraged enough to track down the first volume of the series, featuring a biography of Bass Reeves, "the most successful lawman in the Old West!"

The story begins in the 1840s, with Reeves as a child. As America was still several years away from the Emancipation Proclamation, Reeves was owned by a white man who taught him how to fire a rifle so that he could enter the boy in shooting competitions and clean up on bets. After all, who would bet on a Black boy?

Reeves grew up like this, but eventually fled during the Civil War and lived with a tribe of Native Americans for a while before joining a platoon of Black Union soldiers. Reeves' sense of justice and fairness earned him a position alongside some Oklahoma deputies and eventually led to him becoming a full US Marshal. He was incredibly effective in the role, ultimately bringing in over 3,000 outlaws over his career, thanks in part to his aim and in part to his overall approach, which often involved sneaking up on his targets in some form of disguise. He did marry and have a son, but he spent much of his time on the roads and didn't see them often, instead travelling with a Native American companion.

I couldn't have pegged Reeves' name for anything a week ago. But after maybe a dozen pages or so, I realized the story sounded just familiar enough that I thought I'd heard it before. And another dozen pages, it dawned on me that I was reading a biography of the real life inspiration for the Lone Ranger. Gill doesn't make that connection obvious until the very end of the book, reflecting perhaps that the connection isn't entirely confirmed. While Gill simply recounts Reeves' life, as opposed to actively trying to make a case for the lawman being an inspiration for the character, the details he provides definitely give the reader something of an a-ha moment when the Lone Ranger idea is finally mentioned on the last page of the story.

Whether or not Reeves did serve as the model for the Lone Ranger is moot, though, as his life is pretty compelling on the face of it. Having grown up a slave, and literally fighting his way out of that life is no small feat by itself. But then to assume a position of authority in a relatively lawless area, as a man who is frequently hated because of the color of his skin... well, that's super impressive. Couple that with being successful? The man would be a big damn hero even if the Lone Ranger was never created!

Gill's storytelling is solid for the most part. I did feel one scene in which Reeves accidentally kills a cook was a little oddly staged; I'm not sure if that was deliberate to emphasize how the subsequent trial could go either way, but I don't know that keeping that part deliberately ambiguous was necessary. After all, a Black man killing a white man in the 1880s would all but guarantee a guilty verdict regardless of the circumstances. Showing readers the actual events clearly wouldn't have changed that.

It's a relatively minor story point to nitpick over, especially since Gill makes it clear what happens with the dialogue, but it did catch me off-guard a bit.

Nevertheless, the book is solid overall, and I'm looking forward to whenever Gill is able to get the next one complete. It looks like that might be about Robert Smalls or Mary Bowser, both of whom sound like great subjects! We definitely need more books like these out there and available, and I suggest you pick this and his Bessie Stringfield biography up.
  • Greg Presto looks at the growing comic market in Africa, particularly in Nairobi.
  • Ron Edwards makes the argument that the history of US comics is the history of DC comics. "There’s no history of Marvel, Dell, Fawcett, Archie, and Gold Key, or their related media without DC in place for the bigger context."
  • Sarah Larson has a nice piece on Dr. Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress. Hayden makes special call-out to their collection of comics.

Superman/Batman: Generations #1
A couple years back, I found a collection of 5,000-6,000 comics on the curb. Mostly Marvel and DC books from around the early 2000s up through about 2010. I've been plenty busy, and haven't read most of them, but I did take some time to read through John Byrne's three Generations series from several years ago that was in that collection.

The basic idea, as Byrne originally posited, was: what if the DC universe aged in real time? So Batman still debuted in 1939, but instead of remaining perpetually in his 20s, he grew older and had to essentially retire around 1960, with the now-adult Dick Grayson assuming the Batman name, and Bruce Wayne's son stepping in to become Robin. Likewise, all the other characters would grow old as well -- Commission Gordon dies in the 1950s, Lois Lane in the late 1970s, and so on.

The overall stories are broken down into discrete time periods. Each "chapter" takes place in a different year, with at least a decade having passed since the previous chapter. (In Generations 3, this extends to a full century between each chapter.) Add in some flashbacks and a bit of time travel, and there's a lot of potential to confuse the hell out of readers. But Byrne proves that he's a consummate storyteller, and the there's absolutely no problem following along anywhere in these three titles. In fact, at one point I accidentally skipped over a page that critically pointed out Superman's trip to the future got screwed up and he accidentally landed in the past, and I still didn't have much trouble figuring out what happened.

Taken at face value, the stories are fun and entertaining. Obviously, there are lots of nods to previous stories from the past century and knowing those makes for some nice points of reference, but even without a strong knowledge of DC lore, everything runs smoothly and, as I said, is fairly entertaining. The first series, in particular, as it has a more light-hearted tone overall. The second series is a little darker, and the third series is about as dark as I've ever seen Byrne get. (Which, granted, is still not as dark as some creators are, but it's noticeable shift from the first and second series.)

I did have two problems with the series, though. The first, and relatively minor, issue is that these are all inked by Byrne himself. Despite being a solid storyteller, inking isn't his strong suit and there were more than a few places where I found the art somewhat lacking specifically because of his inking. I've seen him ink decently before, but typically, as we see here, it's surprisingly rough and unnuanced. Line weights don't vary as much as they could/should. There's a lack of elegance to the finished product because of that. It doesn't hinder the story itself, but it's not doing any favors either.

The bigger problem I had was a conceptual one. Byrne is very clear, with prose piece in each #1 issue, that we're supposed to be watching Superman, Batman, etc. age in real time. How would things be different if they couldn't carry on superheroing forever? Which is an interesting idea, but that's not what Byrne actually presents. He defines Superman as functionally immortal as one of his super-powers. OK, fine, that's kind of/sort of established for the character. But so is Wonder Woman. And Martian Manhunter. And the New Gods. And the Ultra-Humanite (who's one of the main villains). And then Byrne makes Batman literally immortal. As well as Batman's son. And Green Lantern. And Lex Luthor. And Lana Lang. Not to mention all of Superman's kids and grandkids. So despite the first two titles spanning a century each, and the third covering ten centuries, the cast remains pretty static. We do see a few characters grow old and die, but most of the primary ones do not.

And that's fine for the story, but that's not exactly what it's presented as. Instead of showing Superman and Batman growing old and aging in real time, we get basically what's already going on in the comics -- where the characters are fighting for truth and justice in perpetuity. I fully expect to be able to buy a Superman or Batman comic decades from now, and see the current superhero formula more or less the same, and what Byrne is positing through his story is that is exactly what will happen. It's almost as if the concept of these characters aging is so incomprehensible that Byrne literally cannot think of how that might actually happen. Superheroes, he seems to say, are eternal EVEN IF you try to present them as mortal.

Which, I suppose, is an interesting angle in and of itself. But by making much of his entire cast immortal, he's diluting that message. Had he left only a couple characters immortal, and other heroes rotating in and out of the story (like he and Roger Stern did in the more-or-less contemporary Marvels: The Lost Generation) that notion that the superhero concept is unending, even if the costumes change, would have been stronger, I think.

Like I said, the stories are entertaining and made for some nice, light entertainment this past weekend. I'm just a bit disappointed that it was basically just another Elseworlds story that says even if everything is different, it's all pretty much exactly the same.
We are one month into Trump's presidency, and I keep finding myself trying to suss how that will impact the comic book industry. As we're only a month in, we don't really have any data yet and most of the broader think pieces I can find were written no earlier than a few days into his term. I presume economists have been watching to see what actually starts happening.

My personal economic situation, as of right now, is actually pretty good. Around the middle of last year, I got a nice promotion at my day job (with an accompanying salary increase) and I just last week had my annual review in which my boss had nothing but praise for me, and I got a decent raise and bonus(!) because of it. My wife also has been anecdotally doing well, although her formal review won't be for another few weeks. Both of our companies seem to be doing well, so there looks to be no danger of us losing our jobs on the horizon. Coupled with the only debt that either of us have being the mortgage on our house, and the fact that I'm a cishetero white male, I don't know that I, myself, have too much to worry about in the short term.

That said, I am worried. Less so for me, but for many of my friends and family who aren't in as stable situations. For those who do have something to be genuinely fearful of. Whether that's a loss of their healthcare because the Affordable Care Act is repealed, or a loss of their freedom because they're Muslim, or a loss of their life because they're Black, or any of the other horrible effects Trump's (and the GOP's) policies are already starting to have on anyone who isn't a rich, white male.

Now because I'm in a fairly stable position, I'm trying to use whatever means I have to help those creators trying to make a living doing comics. Often by supporting them when/where I can via Kickstarter or Patreon or whatever, or just buying their books, or just promoting their work on social media (although my reach is decidedly limited there, so I don't know how much impact I honestly have). But that's me. I'm doing what I can because I can, but I've already talked with people who've had to cut back because of their own position. Their income is less stable, and they're not able to help as much.

Further, people are putting their resources towards countering Trump. Instead of a vacation, they're travelling to a protest or march. Instead of spending time reading, they're writing and calling their Congressional representatives. Their money is going to placards and stamps instead of comics.

And that's only a month in.

I suspect -- and this is indeed just speculation -- that we'll see more of that. Businesses will contract and/or switch full-time employees to contractor status, which will make the more stable people less stable. That, in turn, will mean they'll be able to provide less support to the creative types who are already less stable, and they'll be forced into survival mode, doing whatever they can just to get a basic income, and spending less time on their art. I talked about this shortly after the election, but I'm starting to see that happening. It's completely anecdotal, possibly driven by confirmation bias, but it's something that I think bears keeping a close eye on. For everyone's sake.
Here are this week's links to what I've had published recently...

Kleefeld on Comics: On Business: Comics Will Break Your Heart

FreakSugar: Fanthropology: Fan vs. Identity

The Comics Alternative - Smart Discussions on Comic Books and Graphic Novels: Webcomics: Reviews of The Specialists, Hominids, and The Last Saturday

Jack Kirby Collector: Incidental Iconography

Kleefeld on Comics: On History: Carl Barks' Duck Review

Kleefeld on Comics: Weekly Comics Links

FreakSugar: Webcomics Wednesday: “I Made A Webcomic?”

Kleefeld on Comics: On -isms: BHM Comic Suggestion

Kleefeld on Comics: On Strips: Earliest Presidential Appearance