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.

Friday, September 12, 2014

On Strips: Bringing Up Father

I noted last week that, as a boy, I was unfamiliar with Bringing Up Father. None of the Cleveland-area papers at the time carried it, nor did either of the Cincinati papers when I moved down there for school. I can't seem to find circulation numbers from that time period but given that the strip was cancelled entirely just a few years later, I have no doubt that they'd dipped pretty low by that point. I suspect, then, that I'm not alone in being largely unfamiliar with the strip and/or its characters.

But the obscurity it seems hold now is comparitively recent. The strip debuted in early 1913 and became popular fast enough that a Broadway stage adaptation was produced the very next year. The stage production was successful enough to warrant six (SIX!) sequels by the early 1920s. Collected editions of the newspaper strip were being published as early as 1919 and came out semi-annually through 1934. There were nine animated cartoons produced between 1916 and 1918. There were three live-action movie shorts in 1920 and 1921. Feature length films were made in 1928, 1939, 1946, 1948, 1949, and 1950. A radio show ran through 1941.

Let me add, too, that the strip became a popular export. The book collections were reprinted in England beginning in 1919, and I believe France as well. In 1923, Bringing Up Father became the first American comic to be translated and published in Japan. This helped open the door for a veritable flood of American comics overseas, with Happy Hooligan, Mutt and Jeff and other titles following in Bringing Up Father's footsteps.

Clearly, there was more than a little interest in the adventures of Jiggs and Maggie.

Now, unlike some older strips that I've complained haven't received any reprint treatment, there are still some Bringing Up Father reprint books being published. IDW has a done a couple volumes under their "Library of American Comics" imprint in the past couple years, and NBM reprinted the first two years of the strip in 2009. Interest has not vanished entirely here.

But for as significant as the strip was, and that it's still being published as reprints, there's surprisingly little discussion -- casual or academic -- about either the strip or creator George McManus. We've still got people talking about Hogan's Alley and Little Nemo and Krazy Kat, but not so much about Bringing Up Father. There's some, certainly, but not as much as it seems it should warrant. Now it's totally possible that it's just flown past my radar since I don't have a long-standing familiarity with the strip (I've been known to completely whiff on stuff-outside-my-normal-purview before) but I wonder why McManus doesn't have quite the staying power despite his work remaining in active circulation for so much longer than other contemporaries.

Hmph. Or maybe I just need to read more.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

On -isms: Transchizophrenic

I just stumbled across the webcomic Transchizophrenic about "an introvert trans-girl who has to face gargantuan problems like dealing with family, overcoming boredom and procrastination, and going outside her room to engage in eventual social interaction with other human beings."
The author, Tresenella, says it's "kind of autobiographical" and what I've read so far certainly seems to have the ring of truth that authentic pieces often have. Her updates seem to have been a little sporadic, she has a note from late August that said she was drawing some new strips and one of them (copied above) posted last week.

So swing by and check it out. It looks like a really clever and honest strip, with probably a few enlightening points for the cis-gendered among us. But, more importantly, I'm hoping it encourages her to make more!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Links

  • ComicBookDB.com was recently hacked. No serious account information was stolen (as the most sensitive data they store is your email) but they have reset everyone's password to be on the safe side.
  • Pascal Wyse looks at how cities are portrayed in comics, and what that says about the broader culture they're reflecting.
  • Michael Schwanke has a short human interest piece on Chip Reece, who created a comic book superhero with Down Syndrome so his son would have one to relate to. The comic has recently been picked up by Alterna Comics.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

On History: Comic Strip Continuity

Here's today's Nancy...
We have a young Fritzi watching cartoons, specifically, Spider-Man and Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? The shows debuted in 1967 and 1969 respectively. That Fritzi was watching them as a young girl suggests she was born no earlier than 1960.

Although since both have been in syndication almost continuously since their debuts, it could theoretically have been much later. According to Wikipedia, she's ostensibly in her late 50s (despite a youthful appearance), so the cartoon references hold up pretty well from a continuity perspective. (A 2012 strip cited Fritzi as "Miss Junior Three Rocks 1978" which implies a 1960 birthdate.)

Except, of course, that she debuted as a 19-year-old in her own strip, Fritzi Ritz, in 1922. Which means she's been in newspapers for 92 years, and would have been born 111 years ago! Fritzi's newspaper debut in fact pre-dates the invention of television by a few years (depending on how you define the 'invention' of TV) and pre-dates commercial network broadcasting by over a decade!

What strikes me as interesting, though, is that Guy Gilchrist, since taking over the strip in the 1990s, has given the strip more continuity and the trappings of serial comics than its origins as a fairly simple gag-a-day strip. Despite the long history the strip has, he's deliberately made the strip something different than what it had been. And yet, with the return of characters like Fritzi (who was absent from the strip throughout the 1980s and early 1990s) and Phil Fumble (who had been absent since the 1960s), Gilchrist has created a greater sense of continuity with the strip's origins than it had previously.

I remarked back when Phil was re-introduced that I didn't really see the point of bringing the long-forgotten character back, but I think I get it now. Despite the strip taking a new style and direction, Gilchrist is using the old characters and establishing a fairly solid continuity specifically to honor the work of the previous creators. One could argue that the guys working at Marvel and DC are often trying to do the same thing, but I think, somewhat strangely, that Gilchrist is doing a better job of it than them.

Monday, September 08, 2014

On Business: RSS Question

I'd like to pose an open question to webcomickers out there who utilize an RSS feed. With most RSS setups, you can choose to display the whole of your content or a preview of your content. Many of the comics I read display only a preview and my guess is that's because they're trying to drive traffic to their site so that I see (and possibly click on) the advertising banners. I get that.

My question is: how many people have actually looked at their revenue before and after going to a preview version of their feed? Does forcing readers to your actual site really increase money you get from advertisers?

I ask for two reasons. First, because I greatly prefer just reading the comics through my feed reader. Second, and more significantly, because the most analytical webcomic creators I know -- Randall Munroe, Dorothy Gambrell and David Malki -- don't do that; their comics are displayed within the feed in their entirety and I don't need to hit their site to read their comics. So I'm sitting here wondering, if three of the more successful webcomic artists display their full comics in their feed, and they happen to be the types of people who are more prone to looking at these types of things critically and not just going on a "gut feeling", I have to wonder why everyone else isn't following their examples?
I mean, one thing I've learning in studying webcomics is that there is no single set formula for success. What works for one person might not work for the next. And that's fine. But that so many webcomickers force readers to their site, largely without real justification from what I can tell, that strikes me as a piece of "conventional wisdom." But "conventional wisdom" is just a fancy name for "lazy thinking" and, if these people have never actually tested their theory, then they might as well be consulting horoscopes and counting tea leaves.

I don't know that Munroe, Gambrell and/or Malki have done testing on this point either, but I know they've done similar types of testing in the past. I'm inclined to think that they the whole "force readers to the site to get ad revenue" would be something they would consciously consider, if not actively test. And if these folks don't think it's worth sending readers from their feed to their site, I have to wonder if it's worth it for everybody else. I don't know for sure, but I suspect not.

So, who out there has actually tested this?