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

Kleefeld on Comics: DC Continues Botching their TPB Program

Kleefeld on Comics: Useless Cover Edits?

Patreon: Webcomics Textbook: Key Texts: The Adventures of Gyno-Star, Part 3  

Kleefeld on Comics: Whatever Happened To..?

Kleefeld on Comics: Parable of the Sower Review



Parable of the Sower cover
When I reviewed Damian Duffy's and John Jennings' graphic novel adaption of Kindred, I ended my review by saying, "But if Kindred sells as well as it ought to, then I suspect we'll see more of her [Butler's] work crossing over into comic formats. Here's to hoping Duffy and Jennings are tapped for those as well!" And indeed, they were tapped to translate Butler's 1993 novel Parable of the Sower. (Published by Abrams Comicsarts on January 28!)

The story begins in 2024 and follows teenage Lauren as she witnesses the dystopian world around her. Society, as we know it, has all but collapsed due to climate change and wealth inequality. The cities that remain are largely run by corporations and the residents are effectively slaves to them. Outside the cities, people try to band together in small communities and/or family groups to ward off marauders and looters. When Lauren's community is ransacked and her family killed, she and two friends decide to try hiking up the coast where, allegedly, potable water doesn't cost more than food. As the three make the dangerous trek on foot (no one can afford gas) from southern California to maybe Oregon or Canada, they meet a number of others who are in essentially the same position. In some cases, they join together and start to form a new community -- as they continue hiking -- around Lauren's new Earthseed religion which is based around the idea of "God is change."

At first, I was a little surprised that Duffy and Jennings opted for Parable as the second of Butler's books they wanted to adapt. The original is basically written as a series of journal entries from Lauren, interspersed with tenets/passages from the Earthseed: The Books of the Living that she's writing, and it wouldn't strike me as particularly conducive to a graphic novel format. While that certainly would make it a challenge to develop, though, the messages within the story itself seem frighteningly more timely now than when Butler first wrote it. Half of the events depicted in here are literally the nightmares that wake me up at night today! (And the other half are nightmares I hadn't considered before, but am terrified of now.) The 2024 that Butler created back in 1993 seems like it could really come to pass on that schedule. There's no flying cars or teleporters or laser guns or anything; you can read this now in 2020 and easily see how this can all happen in four short years.

But you know, that's all stuff you can read in reviews and summaries of Butler's original. The question here is: how did Duffy and Jennings do in adapting it?

The more I sit and think on it, the more impressed I am honestly. Interestingly, they mostly keep the same narrative hook of presenting Lauren's journal entries. They're presented here as captions, but hand-written on lined notebook paper. However, what struck me was that, despite being fairly caption-heavy to accommodate Lauren's journal entries, it never feels caption-heavy. I think you'd risk the danger of the book feeling more like illustrated prose than sequential art, but it never comes across that way. It's not uncommon to go several pages without any actual dialogue (instead the only words being the journal-style captions) but you never get the sense that things can/should have been handled differently. I suppose that might be, in part, because it's all written from Lauren's point of view, but they do a good balancing act of being sure to include the actions and dialogue of other characters, so it doesn't feel like a giant monograph.

One hallmark of good comic book writing, I think, is to know when to hold back on the script and led the art do the storytelling. It's easy to find examples -- in older comics especially -- where caption boxes and dialogue basically just reiterate what's being shown. That's also a challenge, I think, in adaptations, where there's a desire to include as much of the original author's text as possible. I think it's a sense of trying to "distort" or "edit" their work as little as possible. I haven't gone through Parable to do a word-by-word comparison, but it does appear like there was a lot of thought that went into what should be said versus what should be shown. And, if certain scenes were to be shown, how much dialogue might need to be added/removed relative to what Butler had originally written? Whatever ended up getting added or removed, though, the whole thing flows very smoothly, and I never feel like they've skipped over a chunk to save space.

Visually, there are some distinct and different challenges here compared to Kindred. In that book, for example, we watched as characters grew up from childhood to adults -- depicting a character consistently isn't always easy, and doing so while making them gradually look older is obviously more difficult. There's no real concerns like that in Parable, but there is a much larger cast of characters, few of which have quick/obvious visible signals to identify them. Lauren's father is the only character, I believe, with a white beard but few other characters share such hallmarks. Despite this, though, the reader is never really at a loss for following who is who, even as the number of characters grow larger and larger. There's almost two whole different casts here, in fact: the community Lauren lives in for the first half of the book, and then the community she builds in the second half. But Jennings manages to make them all individuals -- a very welcome boon for someone like myself, who tends to get lost in prose with a long string of names. (And good grief -- me trying to read a play? I never know who's supposed to have said what! Why did they make us read plays in high school anyway? The whole point is that you were supposed to watch a play! It's an inherently audio/visual medium! But I digress...)

One of the interesting ideas Butler introduced in her original is that Lauren suffers from hyperempathy, a condition where she literally feels the pain of those near her. This is originally explained via Lauren's journal entries, but throughout the book, Jennings has created a set of visual cues that alert the reader when Lauren is experiencing this, so that it doesn't need to be reiterated in the text repeatedly. It's another benefit that comics have over prose is that it can mix and match different types of signifiers for readers that help streamline the book.

Let me try to sum things up this way... if you didn't know Parable was initially a prose novel, you wouldn't get the sense that Duffy and Jennings' version here wasn't the original. It doesn't seem like an adaptation; it seems like it was designed as a graphic novel from jump. It's not just excellent as an adaptation, it's excellent as a comic. Between that, and the powerful story Butler wrote in the first place, I don't see any reason why this shouldn't be the next book you read.

If you already like Butler's work, reading this is a no-brainer -- they do a great job of telling the story in a new medium. If you like Duffy and Jennings' work, reading this is a no-brainer -- I honestly think it's the best work I've seen from either/both of them. If you have any concerns about what you see/hear on the news, you should definitely put this at the top of your TO READ pile -- forewarned is forearmed, after all, and I would not be at all surprised to see 2024 look exactly like it's depicted here. It's scary as f*** out there right now, but it can get a whole lot worse. But if enough people see this and/or start at least attempting Lauren's hyperempathy, maybe we keep this book safely cataloged in the fiction section.
Rocketo #6 cover
From time to time, I come across a comic book that I really like -- sometimes they even seem to gain a measure of critical success -- and then the creator just seems to disappear. Maybe the book will get finished, maybe not, but their work is enjoyable enough that I miss not seeing more regardless. Sometimes, I'm able to track them down and at least find out what happened. More often than not, I can't find anything. Either their name is too common or the work was so disregarded as to be unknown or they have just shunned anything resembling attention.

Frank Espinosa is probably one of the more high profile creators in this vein. His Rocketo series was exceptionally well-received, receiving three Eisner nominations in 2006. After that series concluded, he did two backup stories for Marvel and two issues of a new series (Killing Girl) for Image before that was canceled. He had a brief stint as a lecturer at MIT and is currently teaching at Scuola Internazionale di Comics in New York.

Of the creators I have located after they left comics, that's actually not an uncommon theme. They still circle in/around comics, but no longer make them professionally because they're busy with a day job. Frequently, teaching. Sometimes illustration, sometimes graphic design, sometimes even comic production... almost always art in some capacity. What does that say to you?

I believe it says a few things, which unfortunately aren't very flattering for the comics industry or education.

First, it says that these people are not not making comics because they don't have talent. (Sorry, I couldn't figure out a good way to succinctly say that without a triple negative.) That is, they have clearly demonstrated that they have artistic ability enough to make comics, otherwise they wouldn't have been hired to teach. So the reason they aren't making comics has nothing to do with their abilities as creators.

Second, it says that their jobs as educators take WAY too much time. It's not uncommon, after all, to hear stories about webcartoonists working as baristas or stocking shelves in retail while working on their webcomic at night or on weekends until they're able to earn a living through their webcomic. That you often don't hear these types of stories from the cartoonists that have had their comics published and professionally recognized, but are now teaching suggests that they don't have enough free time from that particular job to also work on a comic of some sort. It's not impossible to teach and create at the same time (I even have Eisner-winning friends who do this!) but that it's relatively rare suggests there's little opportunity after you've finished working on lesson plans and grading essays and writing academic journal articles and such.

Third, it says comics don't pay well. That's not necessarily to say that you can't get some nice-sized checks from publishers for comics work (I'm sure Robert Kirkman is quite happy with his income) but that it's unsteady and fluctuates considerably month to month makes it difficult to handle finances. Teaching (or, frankly, most other day job situations) provide a steady income stream that isn't reliant on this next book doing well. Health care almost certainly factors into this as well, although that's a pitfall for anyone working in any sort of freelance capacity.

There are obviously other reasons a creator might choose to forgo comic making. I've personally spoken to a number of women (all of whom spoke to me on the condition of anonymity) who left comics because of the sexual harassment they've received. David Trampier famously dropped out entirely, apparently so disgusted with one publisher's practices that he avoided publishing entirely. (As an aside, I was wondering a bit about Trampier's disappearance here in 2012; in writing today's piece, I discovered he passed away in 2014.) And obviously, not all creators go into education -- I know a couple who have become successful as children's book illustrators, for example.

I'm sure many industries have instances of creative individuals leaving because they're better able to make a living in another field, despite whatever talents they might have. I just find it lamentable that highly talented creators feel the need to leave comics because they can't earn a living, thanks to the publishing paradigms. Imagine how many good comics we might be getting if the industry supported it? But I suppose that's just the plot of Hicksville, isn't it?

*sigh*
When publishers reprint comics, they sometimes get new cover art for them. Often, the cover art has to be re-worked to some degree anyway, to accommodate a different logo or publisher format changes, so it's sometimes easier and cheaper to get a new artist to create a new cover image rather than try to adjust the old one. Sometimes, editors feel, too, that getting a different artist to draw a new cover might make it fall more in line than whatever new stories are being contemporaneously published. If you got whoever's drawing Amazing Spider-Man this month, their artwork on a reprint cover might attract some readers who would gloss over or ignore a Steve Ditko cover. Whatever the case, there certainly are solid justifications for getting a new cover drawn up for a reprint issue.

Of course, it's also sometimes the case that there's not enough budget to hire a new artist, but the original cover art still needs to be re-worked for new format considerations. In these case, it usually then falls to someone on the production team to try to make whatever modifications are necessary. That might be simply re-cropping the original, or it might involve moving around individual components. These days, all of that is done digitally, of course, but before computers became a staple of the industry, someone would have to photostat the image (basically, a high-quality photocopy), cut it up with an X-acto, and paste everything back down in the new format. Depending on the number of changes needed -- particularly if they involved having to resize only certain portions -- this could be quite tedious.

But over on Twitter, Greg pointed out to me the huge number of changes that had to be made when reprinting Fantastic Four #97 as Marvel's Greatest Comics #78. Take a look at these two covers...
Fantastic Four #97 Marvel's Greatest Comics #78
Most obviously, the creature figure and the story title have been swapped. The Human Torch figure has been shrunk and placed higher on the page, and the entire shoreline has been re-drawn. Almost an inch of additional art has been added on the right side to show the Thing's left leg, and the radio from above his head has been moved down to the side. There's also a beach blanket drawn in for him to lay on, and the Human Torch is given a can of soda (with two straws for some reason). The ground texture has been entirely re-done from waves of sand to somewhat more rocky texture.

That's a fair amount of re-work to achieve, essentially, nothing. It's still Jack Kirby artwork, and the adjustments don't change the impact of the visual. The FF are relaxing on the beach, with the Torch moping off to the side, and they're all oblivious to the monster sneaking up behind them. The elements are moved around a bit, but the visual impact is more or less unchanged. I was really puzzled by this for a while. The whole logo/corner box area is formatted a little differently, but doesn't take up appreciably any more room on the page. So why go through all the time to re-work everything?

Then, I noticed a new element to the layout -- the UPC symbol. In the eight years between the release of Fantastic Four #97 and Marvel's Greatest Comics #78, Marvel had begun adding UPCs to their covers. That effectively kills that bottom corner of the page from an art perspective since any art drawn in that corner would get covered by the bar code. The layout changes then begin to make sense... the Human Torch was moved up so he wasn't getting cut off by the bar code; he was shrunk a bit to keep the figure perspective; moving the Torch would have interfered with the monster figure, so that was moved to the right; the story title was then shrunk slightly and was used to fill the space left by the creature; other elements were drawn in to fill in the now-empty spaces. That all kind of makes sense.

Except...

Except pretty much none of that was really needed. Here's what it looks like when I took the Marvel's Greatest Comics masthead and UPC, and drop them on top of Fantastic Four #97 with no other adjustments...
Marvel's Greatest Comics #78 mock-up
The Human Torch figure remains almost entirely visible, and everything else fits pretty well as is. The monster's head breaks into the "R" of the title a bit more than would be ideal, I suppose, but not so much that it's no longer legible. The new copyright notice does overlap with the monster's shoulder, but there's plenty of space under the masthead Torch figure where the old corner box used to be.

So I'm ultimately still a little confused by all the changes. The modifications they did make were pretty significant, and I'm sure took someone in the production department a great deal of time and effort. The end result isn't bad, certainly, but it seems like a heck of a lot of work when they could've left it almost unchanged and gotten the same effect.
I haven't paid much attention to the collected comic editions for a while now. I've picked up a few, but mostly just as I came across them; I haven't really been out looking for specific collections or playing the "waiting for the trade" game. So I've known generally that comic publishers are releasing collected editions of their monthly pamphlet comics, but I don't know what's typical for them with regard to price, length, publication schedule, 'bonus' features, etc.

Graphic Novel bookshelf (not mine!)
This weekend, however, @ProfessorThorgi posted an interesting Twitter thread about how DC is completely botching their trade paperback program. It's not very long, and worth reading all of it, so I'll embed it all here...

You know, I was planning to add my own commentary to this, but honestly, I think @ProfessorThorgi covers pretty much everything! I'm just left wondering what the hell they're thinking over at DC!
Here are this week's links to what I've had published recently...

Kleefeld on Comics: What the Hell Happened with WCA #56?

Kleefeld on Comics: We Need an Emergency Preparedness Webcomic

Patreon: Webcomics Textbook: Key Texts: The Adventures of Gyno-Star, Part 1

Kleefeld on Comics: On Hope

Kleefeld on Comics: Comic Strips Ended Without Fanfare

Patreon: Webcomics Textbook: Key Texts: The Adventures of Gyno-Star, Part 2

Kleefeld on Comics: What Are You REALLY Doing?



McDonaldland Comics #101
I watched the 2017 movie The Founder recently. It basically tells the story of how Ray Kroc stole McDonald's from two brothers out in California and built it into a huge mega-business that we know today. Interestingly, the movie is pretty clear that their protagonist, Kroc, is a slimy asshole and he really ripped off the original McDonald brothers.

There's a point in the story, though, where Kroc has managed to franchise a dozen or two locations in the Mid-West but he's barely breaking even, and the bank is on him to pay off his startup loans. A savvy accountant overhears his dilemma, and offers to go over his books. He comes back and essentially says, "There's no way you can make money by taking a cut of these franchisees selling 15¢ hamburgers*." Then he tells Kroc about the boatload of money he's sitting on without even realizing it. The money is not in the franchising itself; it's in the real estate. If Kroc buys the land a McDonald's could be built on and then leases that to a franchise owner, he can make a killing in the leasing fees regardless of how many hamburgers that particular location sells. McDonald's today has approximately $30 billion in real estate holdings and is one of the largest commercial real estate owners in the world. It's a real estate company, not a fast food restaurant.

Marvel came to a similar epiphany around the turn of the century, after they came out of bankruptcy. They had historically always viewed themselves as a comic book publisher. But right around 2000, they formally stopped being a comic book publisher and became a character licensing company. Within a year or two, their income from comics had dropped to about one-third of their overall revenue with another third coming from toys and another third from licensing. By 2005, licensing represented 70% of their income!

That's actually part of why they were bought by Disney. Marvel had matured enough to realize what they were really selling wasn't comic books, but character interactions. Marvel's press releases at that time began describing the company as "one of the world's most prominent character-based entertainment companies." Just a few years previously, their description began by calling them "the largest publisher of comic books in North America." The idea is similar; you're not going to make tons of money on $3 comic books** -- you're going to make money licensing the characters out for t-shirts and video games and movies. I've seen people grouse that the comics are now just a break-even R&D platform, and they're not wholly wrong. I don't know that that is necessarily a bad thing, but it's not inaccurate.

The key with any business, ultimately, is figuring out what kind of good or service you're REALLY providing. Overall, webcomic creators, I think, have some understanding of this. They're giving away their comics for free on their website, and trying to make money selling t-shirts or fridge magnets or whatever. The thing that most people know them for -- the comic itself -- is what drives traffic but it's not what drives their business. As a creator -- whether you're Raina Telgemeier selling a gazillion books or a mid-level creator just making enough to earn a living or a beginner who's still working two part-time gigs to make ends meet -- you need to figure out what it is that you're REALLY providing your audience. I mean, sure, they might be buying and enjoying your comics, but what is it that they really get from you.

That can be hard to figure out. I get it. I've been writing about comics for almost a quarter century now, and I still don't know what it is that I'm really providing. Superficially, it's always been insights and information about comics that you're not likely to find anywhere else, but I know those are just 15¢ hamburgers.

* A McDonald's hamburger cost 15¢ at the time.
** A Marvel comic cost $2.95 at the time.