Monday, October 20, 2014

On Business: Mixing Business & Friendships

I've been to a few different weddings now where at least one of the two people getting married worked in comics. The ceremonies themselves obviously reflected the individuals, and I've been honored and proud to have been witness to them. But as I'm sitting here reflecting a bit, I can't help but make some comparisons. Not in terms of whose was better or anything like that, but just how different approaches in making comics are reflected in the weddings.

On one end of the spectrum was a wedding in which both the bride and groom worked in comics in different capacities. They're not huge celebrity names that sell tons of additional books just because their names were on them, but they're far from unknowns. They've both done work for Marvel and DC, as well as some personal projects that are closer to their passions. They know that those personal projects are emotionally satisfying, but they need to work with the big guys to pay the bills. As such, they spend a lot of time in and among the circles of comics professionals and, accordingly, a great many of their wedding guests were comics professionals.

On the other end was a wedding in which just the groom worked in comics. Again, not a huge celebrity name but one that's not unknown. He's never worked for Marvel and DC. I suspect that if they offered him a gig, he'd take it, but it's never been a real pursuit of his. He'd rather work on his personal passion projects and pour his all into that. His work is very much his work, and that's what drives him, even if he never really makes any fame or fortune from it. He pours his energy into the work, and doesn't spend much as much time with other comic professionals. Accordingly, at his wedding, there was only one other guest besides myself who had much of an interest in comics, but he wasn't working in the industry and he was on the bride's side anyway!

It's interesting, I think, because a wedding isn't just a list of everyone in your address book; it's a reflection of the people closest to you emotionally. The first wedding happened to look like a comic book convention attendee list; the second one, not so much. Even though I suspect he could scan through his digital rolodex and get the names and addresses of just as many comics folks. Part of why those first couple are doing more work within the industry (after, of course, having a fair amount of talent) is that they have a number of people they are close to who also work in the industry, and are able to provide support and guidance, even if it's only tangential to their prime career. The other gent, not being as "in" with other comics pros, doesn't have as many connections to work with, and winds up working largely outside the system. Which, I hasten to add, is not an issue/concern for him! I daresay it's almost a point of pride.

Neither approach is necessarily better than the other. And your wedding should not be about just trying to make industry connections. But it is interesting to note how the different professional approaches are reflected in the personal lives of creators. By taking one path, your personal and professional lives blur together more than you might expect, but by taking another path, you can still work in comics and keep them pretty separated. It all depends on what your goals and aspirations as a comic creator are.

Friday, October 17, 2014

On Strips: First Dual-Duty Creator?

One of the many challenges in working as a comic strip artist is the daily grind of it. Although things have changed enough in recent years so that it's no longer mandatory per se, but the general rule is that they have to churn out a new strip seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. A new strip with a new idea every single day. That's no easy task. So when someone comes along to work two strips...? Well, that is certainly an impressive feat.

I think the first person I recall seeing do that was Jim Davis. He had been doing Garfield for several years, and then introduced U.S.Acres. He no longer does both strips, and only does some of the work on Garfield any more however. Of course, he wasn't the first or last to try multiple strips and you could argue he wasn't very successful at it since his second strip only lasted three years. (At that point, I'm not sure how many assistants Davis might have been using, or if he was still trying to do it all himself.)

You've also got team-up efforts that would seem to make the increased workload of a second strip more mangeable. Mort Walker (who was already working on Beetle Bailey) collaborated with Dik Brown (already working on Hagar the Horrible) to develop Hi and Lois together. Tom Batiuk (after working on Funky Winkerbean) launched John Darling with Tom Armstrong and later Crankshaft with Chuck Ayers.

Another alternative is to not make the second strip a seven-day-a-week thing. Greg Cravens has been working on The Buckets for several years, and more recently launched the five-days-a-week webcomic Hubris. Mike Peters does Mother Goose & Grimm every day, but his editorial cartoons are only twice a week.

So it's not unheard of to work on two strips simultaneously, but it's clearly an effort. But my question is: who attempted this first? Who was the first comic creator to work on more than one strip at a time?

Well, I haven't done an exhaustive analysis, but I'm currently putting my money on Winsor McCay. His first strips were published in 1903. He tried a couple different titles, but they didn't last very long. His first real success was Little Sammy Sneeze which debuted in July 1904. While still working on that, he launched Dream of a Rarebit Fiend in September of that year. In January 1905, he began The Story of Hungry Henrietta (not one of his more popular strips) and in June, he started A Pilgrim's Progress By Mister Bunion before finally getting to Little Nemo in Slumberland in October. The only strip McCay dropped during this timeframe was Hungry Henrietta so at the tail end of 1905, he was working on four different strips simultaneously. He continued that throughout 1906 before dropping Sammy Sneeze (so he could do a 4,000 cell animation by himself) but he continued on with the other three strips through 1910.

Now, granted, these weren't all daily strips, but they were more detailed and considerably larger than anything you'd find today (often taking up a full newspaper page by themselves). Other earlier cartoonists certainly worked on multiple strips in a serial nature, but does anyone know of any cartoonists working multiple strips simulatenously?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

On -isms: Fear & Courage

People are called courageous for doing things that many others won't do. Running into burning buildings to save someone. Defending a stranger against an armed assailant. Reporting an injustice even under the threat of bodily harm. There's no end to what can be considered examples of courage. And many look to those so-called courageous people as individuals who have no fear. They're real world Green Lanterns, charging into to save the day without even the benefit of a power ring.

But that's not courage. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is not the opposite of fear. Courage is having the inner strength to do something IN SPITE OF fear. In order to be courageous, you need to be first be fearful of something so that you can overcome that fear.

You can still be heroic without being courageous, mind you. Superman is very heroic. He goes around saving people all the time. But it's not courageous for him to stand in front of a bank robber's gun since he knows that his skin is hard enough to deflect every one of the bullets without so much as leaving a bruise. Heroism ≠ courage.

And this is relevant to our ongoing -isms discussion because fear is what lies at the heart of most -isms. Often fear of the unfamiliar. Fear of what's different.

"I don't really know any gay people. Their culture includes things I don't understand. I don't know what to say or how to act when they display those cultural touchstones that are unfamiliar to me."

"I don't really know any Black people. Their culture seems different than mine, and I do not want to risk theirs superceding mine. I'm very comfortable with my own culture, and not comfortable with theirs."

That's essentially what -isms boil down to: a mechansim for justifying treating someone poorly because they look/act/sound a little different than what you're used to. They're reacting out of fear. They're reacting fearfully because they have no courage. They fear what they don't know or understand, and don't even have the courage to try to learn about it. They don't have the courage to say, "Just because it's different doesn't mean it's wrong." They don't have the courage to say, "Just because it's different, it doesn't invalidate my preferences."

And perhaps that's part of the problem in comics. There are so many out there that talk about heroism, but don't touch on courage. Spider-Man doesn't fear going against the Green Goblin. Batman doesn't fear confronting the Joker. Archie Andrews didn't even fear taking a bullet for Kevin Keller. Those characters are/were absolutely acting heroically, but not courageously.

I can't help but wonder, then, if we would see fewer instances of -isms in the comics community if the stories were less focused on heroism, and more focused on courage.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Links

  • Guy Thomas talks with Kevin Budnik. Lots of good talk about Budnik's comics, but more importantly, we learn what his favorite David Bowie song is!
  • Serena Guerra had some G.I.Joe art stolen from her table at New York Comic Con this past weekend. Please keep an eye out for it!
  • Gene Luen Yang's brother-in-law is making his first comic. Yang is mentoring him through the process and posting about the work online. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3...

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

On Blogging: Please Stand By

Let me provide an apology to regular readers of my blog. You may have noticed that I missed a post both last week Monday, and again yesterday. October has become an exceptionally busy month for me on a personal level, and I haven't been able to devote too much headspace to thinking about comics. A week ago, I got married (you can now mentally replace all past "significant other" or "S.O." references on the blog with "wife") and on Sunday, I ran the Chicago Marathon. Two big events, essentially back-to-back, left me with about no room for backup plans on the blog. Regular posting should resume shortly.

This coming weekend, I'm flying out of town to attend a friend's wedding. He's a cartoonist, though, so I might be in a little more comics-oriented mindset. I'm hoping I won't miss any more blog days this year, but part of the problem with trying to DO EPIC SHIT is that it occasionally gets in the way of more mundane things like blogs.

Friday, October 10, 2014

On Strips: Animated B.C.

I did not realize before yesterday that Johnny Hart's B.C. had been animated multiple times. The first time was in 1973 (fifteen years after the strip debuted) when NBC aired B.C.: The First Thanksgiving and featured the talents of folks like Daws Butler and Don Messick. Peanuts had had success in animated holiday specials since A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired in 1965, and this B.C. special was presumably meant to compete against A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving which also first aired in 1973.

Curiously, a "sequel" (B.C.: A Special Christmas) didn't show up until 1981. It featured the voices of Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding this time. Johnny Hart is given full story credit here (he splits it with Jack Caprio on the Thanksgiving special), although the story is surprisingly secular given Hart's later penchant for proselytizing in his strip and how religious the Peanuts special was. The only real religious reference is a set of three men on camels walking off towards the North Star at the very end.

As near as I can tell, neither B.C. cartoon has seen wide syndication, nor have they been released on any form of home video. Evidently, they just didn't charm viewers in quite the same way Schulz's characters did. YouTube, however, does have the Christmas special as a single video, and it looks like there's enough clips of the Thanksgiving one to see that in it's entirety as well.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

On -isms: Why It's Important to Shit on Columbus

Monday, October 13, is Columbus Day, the day Americans honor the man who "discovered" our country. In recent years, you may have heard some groups make some noise about how we shouldn't pay tribute to the man, or how some cities have re-named the day "Indigenous People’s Day." Matthew Inman put together this "comic" (it's not really a comic, so much as illustrated prose) providing several reasons why Christopher Columbus isn't worthy of a holiday; it will probably be more extensively linked to in the next few days.

But the retort often comes back: why should I change what I grew up with? This is basically the same arguements sports fans have been making about professional teams with racist names and mascots.

Like, I expect, many of you, I was taught in school that "in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue..." And this was in a suburb of Cleveland, where opening day of baseball season was almost more of a holiday than Columbus Day, so we could celebrate the Cleveland Indians. And that was just how things were. We grew up with it all around us, so it felt quite normal and everyone accepted Columbus as a sort of godfather to the United States and Chief Wahoo as Cleveland's pride. There were a few of us, I recall, who were well-read enough to know about Leif Ericson, but he was mostly brushed off with a "yeah, he technically 'discovered' America before Columbus, but he never did anything about it." Similarly, we knew Columbus never actually set foot in North America, but Central America was close enough to count.

But even with those caveats, the basic stories we were told as children held true. 1492, Columbus, New World, colonization, Thanksgiving, George Washington... That was American history class for us. And that's why it's problematic for so many people today to accept these "new" truths about history.

See, we learn a whole bunch of stuff as kids. And sometimes those things turn out to be untrue. There was a time when a molecule was thought to be the smallest component part of matter. People were taught this. And then we discovered atoms. And then we discovered protons and electrons. And then we discovered quarks. And each time one of these discoveries was made, people had to go around "re-learning" what they thought they knew about microscopic particles. And that was okay because each time, these were entirely new discoveries.

"Well, we thought molecules were the smallest things ever, but we got this new microscope and now we can see the stuff that makes up molecules!"

"We thought atoms were the smallest things ever, but we can now see there's stuff that makes up atoms!"

"We thought protons and electrons were the smallest things ever..."

These are genuinely new discoveries. Things that no one had any knowledge of before. Science often works like that.

But history, particularly this type of history we're talking about with Columbus, comes from a different place. History, it's said, is written by the victors. And they write history in a way to put the best light possible on themselves. Sometimes just by putting a positive spin on events, sometimes by omitting negative elements, sometimes with outright lies. And that is why accepting revisions in history (and social sciences more generally) is more difficult.

See, it's not really that people think Columbus was a great and noble hero, and they have this huge amount of respect that they flat-out reject any notion that he doesn't deserve a holiday. No, the issue is that the people who taught them that -- their parents, and teachers, and guardians -- are now being portrayed as liars. They're protesting the idea that the authority figures they looked up to and respected as children told them something fundamentally untrue. The people who taught you how to read and write, the people who provided praise when you did something well, the people who fed you and bathed you and put a roof over your head... you're now being told that they were wrong. And not just wrong, but willfully wrong. That they knew the truth, and deliberately lied to you for the sake of whatever story they were trying to tell. That's a hard pill to swallow.

And that's why it's important to go out of the way to show just how awful a person Christopher Columbus was. If you just say that he brought diseases to the New World, someone might be able to dismiss that as an unintended consquence. If you say he brought back slaves, they might say they were brought back to show what natives looked like and that Columbus didn't actually intend for them to be slaves. But as you pile more and more crap on Columbus -- he brought back slaves repeatedly, he chopped off the hands of natives who didn't pay him, he wrote in his journal about raping the women, etc. -- it gets that much harder to dismiss or ignore.

That biographic comic I have picture on the left? It's not done all that well in the first place, but more importantly, it largely reiterates the lies I was told as a child. The Oatmeal piece that I linked to above; frankly, it's not a great example of a biographic comic by any means, but Inman at least tries to set the record straight.

Listen, like I'm sure a lot of you, I had a crush on my first grade teacher too. (Ms. Cougar -- I swear, her name was Ms. Cougar!) She was sweet and attractive and seemed to know everything (she was a teacher, after all) and I thought the world of her. But there was stuff she (and ALL of my subsequent teachers) told us that were lies. They were human, and subject to the same influences you and I are. In some cases, they were just reiterating what they were taught (and never questioned) and in some cases, they had an agenda of some sort. (My biology teacher in high school managed to include creationism in her lessons on evolution.) Don't continue to "honor" those individuals by insulting whole groups of people who had their or their ancestors lives severely and negatively impacted.