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I was reading through an old post of mine from 2007(!!!) about how I stopped going to my Local Comic Shop every Wednesday because I "needed" to get the latest issues immediately, and flipped a sort of mental switch where I would hit the shop most (but not all!) Wednesdays as a matter of ritual. That it was the act of knowing what I was going to do on my lunch hour once a week that provided a modicum of stability in a turbulent world. (And good grief, when I compare what I thought was turbulent in 2007 versus what I consider turbulent now... YOWZA!)

It might not be terribly surprising that my comics habits have changed considerably since 2007. When I moved up to the Chicago area in 2013, for example, I actually lived in several different places before finding and moving into a permanent residence. Because I kept moving, I wasn't able to establish my local comic shop. And unfortunately, once I did finally find a place, the physically closest comic shop is an unironic real-life version of Android's Dungeon.
Comic Book Guy and Stan Lee
It's cramped and dingy and dark and unorganized and the owner seems sketchy as hell. So I don't go in there very often.

Now, I certainly could go to any number of other comic shops. Chicago has a number of really good ones; many are closer to me now than one of my previous local comic shops was to me in Ohio. But by the time I had settled down from moving, and figured out where everything was... well, my buying habits had somewhat forcibly changed. At that point, I wasn't getting any ongoing titles any longer and the ones I was getting had been winding down anyway. Once I bought the last couple issues, I wasn't in the stores enough to see what new books might replace them. And I had plenty to still read thanks to webcomics. So between shop signings and sporadic conventions, I was still able to get all the new physical comics I wanted, with maybe an occasional order on Amazon for a good trade paperback I might hear about.

My comics ritual had dissolved entirely. It wasn't that it had changed or morphed a bit; it was just gone. I was still reading comics, but there was no ritual tied to the process at all. Whenever I had time. I mentioned in passing the other day that with my severely limited mobility last year, I started using a subscription service. (Lone Star Comics' MyComicShop for those interested.) This inadvertently created a new potential ritual for me -- receiving a package once a month with all my new comics. I could establish some new process for opening the box, checking the new issues, and reading them. Give myself a little much-needed stability to stabilize the super chaotic couple of years I've had.

But for some reason, I've never done that. Some months, the box would arrive when I was home, some months not. If I was home, the dog would usually alert me to the deliverer's presence so I could retrieve the package whenever it arrived (usually in the early afternoon) rather than always waiting until the end of the day or something. I could've set aside some special time to open each box and sort through the new issues. Also not done. I could recognize the boxes pretty much immediately, so there was no real surprise in what was in them, so they would sometimes sit on the kitchen table for a day or so before I could get to them. "Yup, I know what that is. Nothing that requires my immediate attention." Or maybe, "I won't be able to read these until the weekend, but it's garbage day tomorrow, so I can open it now and make sure the box gets in the recycling bin right away."

And that's all been... fine? I guess? I mean, I don't really miss the weekly trips to the comic shop, and I don't feel like things would necessarily better if I developed a ritual for how I read comics now. But given how stormy the waters have been -- and how I've had very little stability for the past two years -- maybe I really should make a point of making my comic book reading a more ritualistic process. To provide a period of grounding that I can give myself once a week or so. An hour or two every week that I can count on, regardless of what the most recent dumpster fire that fills up my news feed is.

I'm still trying to get my footing again. This blogging is a part of that. Maybe my reading habits should be too.
The Disappearance of Cadet Turner logo
A little over a year ago, I wrote about The Mysterious Package Company and how it'd be cool if someone did a similar experience around comics. Well, it turns out they either saw my note and acting on it, or they're just thinking along the same lines because debuting next month is The Disappearance of Cadet Turner, their newest experience and one centered around comics!

It's a fair bit different than what I had originally suggested. Instead of getting an inheritance of materials from a long dead comic creator, the mystery is around some comic fans themselves. The official description reads...
The late 80’s, a foster home in Oregon — Two ten-year-olds met and bonded over their shared love of a comic series called Super Star Cadets. The series followed an intergalactic adventuring duo who explore the universe in search of legendary artifacts.

Inspired by the heroes in the comics, Pat and Gretta’s playtime emulated the stories in the comics. They explored places outside the safety of their home, collected strange samples, and kept an audio log of their missions.

On a warm day in September 1987, their adventure took them into the woods, but only one of them came back.

Now, three decades after his strange and sudden disappearance, Gretta is still searching for Pat. She needs your help to find Cadet Turner.
This sounds like a great set-up to me. It's notably different and original relative to their other experiences. I don't know how well the company is doing financially to know if their model is practically replicable but I would love to see more of this type of thing in the future.

I've talked before about how more immersive experiences will become more common and this strikes me as an excellent alternative to, say, a Star Wars style theme park. Even though The Mysterious Package Company's experiences aren't cheap, they're a fair bit more reasonably priced -- both for consumers as well as companies -- than building a small city like a Disney has done. Something like this could be an option for smaller publishers as a marketing strategy. It's certainly a little unconventional compared to historical marketing techniques but I think that's what necessary to rise above the noise any more.
Here are this week's links to what I've had published recently...

Patreon: Webcomics Textbook: Key Texts: Penny Arcade, Part 8

Kleefeld on Comics: What's This? A New Blog Post?!?

Patreon: Webcomics Textbook: Key Texts: Questionable Content, Part 1

Kleefeld on Comics: Remembering Tom Spurgeon

Kleefeld on Comics: What Have I Missed?

For a good chunk of last year, I was largely immobile. Weeks in the hospital, months in a wheelchair, and more months where I could use a walker but not drive. One of the problems with this was getting out to pick up any new comics I wanted, whether that was a New Comic Day visit to my local comic shop or picking up something neat-looking at a convention; I just could easily get out to do any of that. With a new Fantastic Four series going back into publication (with a writer whose work I generally really enjoy) I signed up for a subscription service so I could keep reading while I was getting rehab.

With more of a corporate emphasis on the FF, I started picking up several Marvel titles in addition to the FF (Two-in-One at first, later FF: Grand Design, Future Foundation, Invisible Woman and Power Pack) something I hadn't done since the Civil War storyline back in 2006/2007. The main book is interesting enough, but the others I find generally lacking. But that's not the point of this post!

Fantastic Four #16
The point is that the contents of Marvel's books seem different than when I last checked in with them. Not so much in terms of the story content itself, but in terms of the advertising. Let's take a quick run-through of the ads that show up in Fantastic Four #16...
  • Inside Front Cover: Axe Body Spray featuring a superhero called The Fresh-Man, apparently designed by Marvel. (The ad includes the Marvel logo and a joint copyright from Unilever and Marvel.)
  • Page 3: Marvel Contest of Champions mobile game featuring the Fantastic Four
  • Page 9: Kid's Spinbrush toothbrushes featuring Iron Man, Black Panther, and Hulk
  • Page 11: Marvel Champions card game featuring Captain Marvel
  • Page 22: Marvel digital comic house ad featuring Spider-Ham
  • Page 24: Marvel house ad reprinting Stan's Soapbox from January 1970
  • Page 27: Letter column
  • Page 28: Marvel house ad for FF #17
  • Inside Back Cover: Citizen Watches featuring The Avengers
  • Back Cover: Avengers Endgame soundtrack
There is literally not a single ad in here that doesn't prominently feature a Marvel property. Now I get that there's some degree of trying to work towards a target audience, but this strikes me as incredibly insular and, ultimately, problematic. Not so much that the ads themselves are a problem, but rather it suggests that Marvel is increasingly catering to its own audience to such a high degree that they don't even seem to recognize anything beyond Marvel. It suggests that they're not even trying to reach new audiences; they're just exclusively focused on people who buy their comics week after week, month after month.

Now, to be fair, I've looked at a couple other recent books (Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man and Invisible Woman) and there's a tad more variety there... but not much. They both have a Geico ad (poorly) drawn as a comic; and they have ads for John Flanagan's series of fantasy novels and Ransom Riggs' Home for Peculiar Children books. But the rest of the as are pretty much the same: house ads or products with some of their characters slapped on them.

Speaking as a marketing guy, I see two possibilities here. 1) Marvel's publishing arm has done an insane amount of consumer research and found that their readers are all over the map with regards to interests, and the only thing that's really consistent that might speak to everyone reasonably well is using their characters. 2) Their research is actually somewhere between crap and non-existent, and they're trying to pull things together intuitively, based on some really broad, cursory assumptions. I'm sure Marvel, as a corporation, has some huge resources at its disposal for consumer research. But whether that extends down to the publishing division, I don't know. Given what I have seen first-hand with regards to their credit card promotions, I kind of doubt it. They were pushing credit card designs based on some pretty gut-level hunches, so I'm not sure that much more data sourcing goes into the ads in their comics.

Like I said, I don't think the ads are a problem in and of themselves. But it does suggest a somewhat ouroborosish approach to their comics division. Like they've given up even trying to attract new audiences.

I hope I'm being too cynical here. I hope I'm wrong. Because that kind of approach doesn't seem sustainable for very long to me. And while many of the Marvel comics I've read lately weren't actually very good, I'd hate for them to go away entirely; that would be devastating to the industry as a whole.
Tom Spurgeon illustration by Nate Powell
By now, you've almost certainly read of Tom Spurgeon's passing. I don't think I've seen social media feeds of any person in/around comics that hasn't posted something about it. Hell, I've come across mentions from people I didn't even realize were on any social media in the first place!

That says a lot about Tom. About the length of his reach and the influence he had on the comics medium. Even if you didn't know Tom personally, you knew who he was regardless if you worked in webcomics, newspaper comics, superhero comics, indie comics... It didn't seem to matter if you were a creator or an academic or a journalist or a fan. It didn't seem to matter if you'd been in comics for decades or you were only just getting started. It didn't seem to matter if your favorite comic sold 100,000 copies every month or if your favorite comic was lucky if sales barely broke into double digits. Tom was there for it.

I don't recall when/where/how I first heard about Tom. I expect I read more than a few of his pieces before I started recognizing his name. But I don't need to tell you that his work stood out as always intelligent, well-informed, and really insightful. He seemed to be able to speak to every aspect of comics with an ease and fluency that was, frankly, staggering. When I first started writing about comics, I was focused almost exclusively on the Fantastic Four (Anyone remember That was me.) and my writing/research role models at that point were Peter Sanderson, Will Murray, and Greg Theakston -- guys who did some really elaborate, deep-dive looks but at incredibly specific niches within comics. As I transitioned to a broader, more generalist approach to comics, I took my cues more from Tom. Not so much his specific writing style, but his overall approach -- that comics as a whole are awesome and it's worth celebrating every aspect of them.

That was Tom's magic. He not only knew and understood comics at a deeply visceral level that very few are able to match, but he genuinely celebrated everything and everybody to do with comics. His warmth easily cut through any sarcasm he might throw out there, and he was of the opinion that, if you had anything to do with comics, you were by default a pretty great person and worthy of not only respect, but praise and support; Tom would do what he could to help in that. Despite his attention often being pulled in several directions at once, he would still make try to make time for whoever wanted it. I was amazed when I first attended CXC, the show that Tom founded and did much of the work for, that Tom was able to take time out to chat with people who were there and came up just to say "hi" or "thanks" despite his being absolutely exhausted; regardless of who it was, he made time for them between moderating panels and general show-running and whatever else he was taking care of. Why? Because they were comics people.

One thing Tom did for me, personally, was validate my work as a writer of stuff about comics. I initially thought of myself as a blogger, in the most insignificant and inconsequential way that is defined. When Tom linked to and talked about what I was doing, though, he did so in a way that showed he thought of me much more highly than that. He kept telling me, in various ways, "What you're doing has value." And while I frequently struggled (and continue to struggle) with what seems like a lack of interest in my work, Tom was there telling everyone else, "Check out what Sean's doing; it's worth your time." I don't think I ever talked about my doubts and insecurities with Tom, but he seemed to innately understand what I had problems with, and how he was able to use his platform to help ameliorate that.

And he seemed to do that with everyone. As I said, he was smart and knowledgeable about comics, but what endeared him to so many was his commitment to making things better for comics and the people in it. The Tweet that Tom has had pinned to the top of his feed reads, "i will save this comics industry to the ground." And that perfectly encapsulates Tom. There's a level of sarcasm there to deflect any indication of seriousness, but he really did want to save this industry in any way he could. That was a large part of why he moved to Columbus, Ohio and started CXC, I think. He saw it as a solid central hub for comics, and a place from which he could affect the most change.

As I got to know Tom, that aspect of him rubbed off more and more. He certainly had me striving to look at and talk about comics as a whole in the most intelligent and knowledgeable way possible, but I got to see, through him, that I could try to leverage whatever influence I had to help others. I don't have nearly the audience or command the level of respect that Tom did, but I can still try to help out comics folks in whatever humble way I can. Maybe it's backing their Kickstarter, maybe it's a review on Amazon, maybe it's a word of encouragement. I can't do that for everybody, of course, but I can try to help some folks at least.

Critical Survey of Graphic Novels: Independents and Underground Classics
Up through about age 30 or so, my aspirations in comics were no higher than maybe be a footnote somewhere in the grand history of comics. I was happy getting a few letters published; there was now an "official" notation of some kind that I was a comics fan of some sort. Throughout my 30s, that expanded a bit so that I tried to get my name in records where it meant a little more. When I submitted pieces for Bart Beatty's three-volume Critical Survey of Graphic Novels: Independents and Underground Classics, I made a point of choosing books that started with "A" and "Y" so I could be assured of getting in the first and last volumes, and several floating around in the middle of the alphabet, so I had a good chance of hitting the middle volume as well; thus, assuring my credits in all three books. That was largely ego-driven and I recognized that even then. But seeing and talking with Tom, that type of thing became less and less important. I mean, yeah, it was still cool to see my name in a book because I backed it on Kickstarter, but I became more pleased just to see the book see print. Particularly the ones which struck me as more important -- more historical or more original or what-have-you.

I don't have the connections that Tom had. I don't have the depth of knowledge or almost intuitive understanding of the industry that he had. I don't have the passion for comics that he had. I don't have the personality to do what he did. But I can take the lessons I learned from him, and try to encourage and support the comics industry in the same sort of spirit that he did. And, yeah, maybe most of the time, that's little more than spending my last $5 on someone's mini-comic at a show I've already spent way too much money at, but damn if they aren't trying hard to just make table costs and their enthusiasm alone is worth rewarding. And that might not seem like a lot, but that could also be the one thing that encourages a creator to keep doing what they're doing and they don't leave comics for a soulless ad agency just so they can pay the rent. And, really, do we another formerly creative individual ground down to drudgery graphics work because they didn't break even on the comics they used to be passionate about before they couldn't afford to make them any more?

I last saw Tom in person at TCAF earlier this year. We didn't get a chance to talk much, but he was his usual cordial and sarcastic self. My next "communication" with him was learning that my editors at Bloomsbury had sent him a draft of my webcomic textbook manuscript in the hopes that he might write a nice blurb about it. I didn't find out until Wednesday evening when I saw that he had said, in part, "Kleefeld is an ideal writer to chronicle the rise of modern webcomics... The longer you take to find and read your own copy is the amount of time I get to be smarter than you." Less than an hour later, I learned of his passing. Like many of you, I'm terribly saddened by his loss, but I am really glad he had a chance to read my manuscript before he passed, and I'm even more pleased that he liked it. He could've written something more generically approving, or not even provided a blurb at all. But he took the time to read it, and provide some effusive praise. Something I haven't heard about my writing in at least two years, given the writing hiatus I was inadvertently on. I'm sure that once the book is officially published, others will take issue with this aspect or that, and actual webcomic creators will laugh at my ignorance, but Tom said it was good, so I don't need much else in the way of validation.

But dammit, Tom, I didn't even get to say thank you for that, much less everything else you've done!

Even with just a quick scan of social media or comics news sites, you can see how many people's lives Tom touched. My experience is hardly unique in that regard. He was an extremely powerful force in comics, and his absence going forward is going to be felt for a very long time. But even though we're all incredibly sad at the loss of Tom, I think we should all take a moment to reflect on what he did, why he did it, and what we might be able to do ourselves to continue those ideas. Because, after all, comics really are a fantastic medium and there are some absolutely amazing people working in/around it. Let's celebrate that, and try to help others who love the medium so much that they want to make a life for themselves in it.

As you probably know, the Kleefeld on Comics blog has been on hiatus since March of last year. I originally put the blog on hold to give me some time to work on my webcomics textbook manuscript. Interestingly, only a couple weeks after putting things on hold here, though, I was hit by a car and found myself in the hospital for several weeks, with another couple months wheelchair-bound after that. So all of my other projects -- literally everything I was working on -- came to a screeching halt. When I had recovered enough to start getting back to working on anything, I was woefully behind on... well, pretty much everything. The physical therapy for the rehab I needed obviously took up a good chunk of time, too, and it's only been the last month or two that I've felt I'm starting to get caught up. So between that and wanting to start reminding people that I'm still around before my book comes out next year, I thought it would be a good time to get back to blogging.

Webcomics Textbook Cover
I've already managed to mention my upcoming book twice in the first paragraph, so let me get some of that info out of the way. Bloomsbury has a Comics Studies series of textbooks focusing on different types of comics. Mine will be the fourth in the series and examines the broad spectrum of what we call webcomics. The handful of books about webcomics so far have primarily been how-to focused, with one looking at webcomics' history up through its 2006 publication. This one does include some history, but it's more of an analysis of the whole medium: the technology, the financing, the creative styles... what makes webcomics different and unique from printed comics?

Here's what Tom Spurgeon has to say about it...
I've always been a great fan of Sean Kleefeld's writing: its clarity, its circumspection, and the measured quality of his tone. Kleefeld is an ideal writer to chronicle the rise of modern webcomics. He patiently explores not just the nascent realities of an industry in flux but all of the roads not taken, all of the false starts and dead ends, with the perspicacity an unformed future demands. In Kleefeld's hands, defining what comics looks like today is less a sorting out process for the ages than a mad crash down a steep hill hoping to scoop up some village's bouncing wheel of cheese set loose on the valley below. By the time you're through, you'll know just what set of circumstances won the day, and what set didn't and what might be yet to come. The longer you take to find and read your own copy is the amount of time I get to be smarter than you.
(As a brief aside, I saw the above quote and wrote this literally less than an hour before learning of Tom's passing. I'll post something more substantial about him tomorrow.)

The book is getting prepped for the printer now, and it should be available in June 2020. You can pre-order a copy now on Amazon or through Bloomsbury's site.

Clearly, I'm going to be trying to encourage people to buy a copy (or two!) over the next several months. But part of what makes for good marketing is just getting my name out there. I've been largely out of the comics-writing circuit for almost two years now, and I need to remind folks that I actually know a thing or two about comics. So I'm going to try to return to my daily blogging and see if I can catch some folks' attention with something clever here. The RSS feed is still available for those who still use them, and I'll try cross-posting on social media if you follow me there.

In the meantime, you can check out the Patreon I still have up and running. I've actually been serializing an early draft version of my webcomics book there, and if you scroll back to 2018 or earlier, you can find archives of some of what I had written for MTV Geek and is no longer readily available elsewhere.

I'm looking forward to getting back into more regular (and public!) writing about comics. I know blogging went out of fashion a while back, but I hope you'll join me anyway for whatever insights I can come up with about our favorite medium!
Here are this week's links to what I've had published recently...

Patreon: Webcomics Textbook: Key Texts: Penny Arcade, Part 6

Patreon: Webcomics Textbook: Key Texts: Penny Arcade, Part 7