Friday, November 21, 2014

On Strips: Cafe con Leche Ends, Part 2

Yesterday, I noted the recent ending of Charlos Gary's Cafe con Leche. That was mostly on the socio-racial implications of the ending of a strip featuring a mixed race couple. Today I'd like to take a few moments to look at the business end of things.

First off, let's make sure everyone's aware that Gary is not out of work. Back in September, he was hired by Charles Schwab as their Senior Director for Visual Communications.
Though he was understandably excited about the new gig, he that Cafe con Leche was coming to end not much later, if he didn't already know when he took the Schwab job. Note the dates on these two Tweets from him...
(That second Tweet translates as "I feel very sad today because my comic is ending" in case you're wondering.)

Gary's next Tweets are some minor clarifications and several "thanks for your support" messages. But the interesting one comes a couple weeks after the last strip was published.
That it might come back "albeit at another syndicate" points to the idea that Creators Syndicate is no longer willing to support the strip. It does not seem to be an issue bewteen Universal and Gary himself, as they're continuing to syndicate Gary's other strip, Working It Out. (Although it should be noted that that strip has been in reruns since April 2012.)
According to Wikipedia, Working It Out was only in 50 papers as of 2004. That's a seriously dated number, I realize, but I have to believe that's higher than what Gary was getting with Cafe con Leche. He noted on his blog several years ago that newspaper editors seemed leary of a comic featuring an interracial couple, and I'm led to believe that it's been an uphill battle since Day One.

So what it sounds like is that newspaper editors are uncomfortable testing the waters very much on the comics page. They'd rather have a more generic comic that they already ran four years earlier than a new one that deals with a nearly unique topic for comic strips. What choice would Creators Syndicate have but to drop the one that (one presumes) is costing them more money than it's earning?

But what does that say about the newspaper industry? By all accounts, newspaper circulation is in something of a death spiral and, rather than try anything new that might change things for good or ill, newspapers would rather go the "safe" route of keeping the status quo, which is all but guaranteed to end in oblivion.

And from a creator's perspective, why would you want to launch a new newspaper strip at this point? It's almost inevitably doomed to fail. At least launching it on the web provides some hope that it might be successful.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

On -isms: Cafe con Leche Ends

I don't think I've seen this come up in the regular comics press circles, and I'm a little irked that I missed it myself, but November 2 saw the last of Charlos Gary's newspaper strip, Cafe con Leche.
The strip followed the domestic adventures of Trey and Maria, a mixed race couple who navigated the traditional male/female stereotypes in comics as well as some of the complexities of coming from very different cultural backgrounds.

That was one of the last syndicated newspaper strips that featured a mixed race couple. Doonesbury (which I believe had a Caucasian/Asian couple) has been in reruns for over a year. Cory Thomas pulled Watch Your Head (which included a Black/Caucasian couple) from syndication to restart it as a webcomic a couple months ago. Boondocks has been gone nearly a decade now. Norm Feuti's Retail is the only noteable one left, I believe. There are some minor characters in Jump Start that are a mixed couple, but that's all I can think of/find. Other strips like Wee Pals do feature a diverse cast, but none of them are shown to be in a mixed race relationship. And certainly none of these strips highlighted it as well as Cafe con Leche.

Why is that significant?

According to the 2010 census, over 15% of all new marriages in the United States are of mixed race couples. A 2008 Pew Research survey suggested fully one third of Americans claimed to have a family member in an interracial marriage. And yet the representation of that in newspaper strips is virtually non-existent.

This is the age-old racial discussion of wanting to see people like me. Black people don't want to see a newspaper page full of comic strips about white folks without recognizing themselves anywhere. Same with Asians, Latinos, etc. You've heard this before. Seeing fictional characters that represent them allows people to consider possibilities that they might not be seeing in their immediate and current life.

The same idea holds for interracial relationships. How many people simply don't even consider dating (much less marrying) someone of a different race just because it never occurred to them that it was an option? How many people think that they have to get married to someone who looks like them because that's what their parents did? It's about opening up people to possibilities beyond what they're presented everywhere else.

There's a motivational quote from Henry Ford that goes, "Whether you think you can or you think you can't, you're right." And maybe that's a little overly optimistic (you can't breathe in a vaccum no matter how much you believe in your ability to do so) but people often accept what's presented to them as their only options, instead of asking if there's something else they hadn't considered. And it's people asking those kinds of questions that leads to progress.

I'll admit Cafe con Leche wasn't my favorite comic, but it was enjoyable. And while I don't personally know any Black men in a relationship with a Latina, I had a lot of respect for Gary for showing that as a possibility to so many people on a daily basis.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

On History: From Shadows to Light Review

I came across a copy of the Mort Meskin biography From Shadow to Light by Steven Brower in a used book shop. I'd heard Meskin's name before and had read enough old Vigilante stories to be vaguely familiar with his style, but I didn't know much more than that.

Not surprisingly, Brower's book shed a lot of light on Meskin for me. Both his personal life, as well as his professional career. And while that was a pretty low hurdle to jump, there was a lot in the book that told me Brower did more than his share of homework, talking to a number of friends and family members specifically for this book.

The book flowed pretty seamlessly through Meskin's life, with plenty of examples of his work, both in and out of comics. It was kind of heartbreaking to hear how much difficulty he had throughout much of his life, though it seems he conquered all of his personal demons eventually, and was able to enjoy his retirement. I'm left imagining what he could have accomplished, had he not had to deal with some of the emotional problems he did.

Despite clocking in north of 200 pages, it's a surprisingly quick read. Part of that stems from the number of art examples provided, but part of that is also attributable to Brower's casual and accessible writing style. I finished the book easily inside a week, only reading for a little before I went to sleep each night.

Meskin's relative obscurity today is unfortunate, given his talent. The book came out in 2010, but doesn't seem to have raised much awareness in the past few years, but I would recommend picking up a copy if you're able. Meskin was very talented, and it's a shame so few people know of him these days. Try not to be one of them.

Monday, November 17, 2014

On Business: Engagement

When I was a teenager, I judged a comic convention largely based on the comics I was able to find. Maybe I found a large run of a single title in a quarter bin, or I came across a rare issue that I needed to fill a hole in my collection. But an event's success, in my mind, was based on what I walked home with.

These days, whether or not I actually walk home with any books is almost immaterial. After all, I can find and purchase just about any comic I'm looking for online. I was just kicking around trying to track down the original Micronauts series, and found several people selling the entire run (plus the annuals, plus the second series) on eBay in one chunk. Or if I want to grab the first Howard the Duck run, it's even collected in a couple different formats now; I can order it from Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Powell's or any number of places.

What's more note-worthy to me these days is who I meet and interact with. Did I get a chance to talk with Jim Steranko or Warren Ellis? Did I get to meet a webcomic artist who I've talked with online, but never met in person? Did I hang out with some friends and all of us went out to dinner afterwards? A successful convention now is one where the dealers play second fiddle to the people who show up.

If you talk with people who study marketing trends and try to help businesses plan for the future, you might find one of the recent -- trends isn't really the right word; cultural directions, maybe? -- is more and more towards experience. That is, consumers don't just want a product, they want an experience. Oh, sure, I could order this do-dad from Amazon, but it would be much more fulfilling if I met the individual artisan who made one and was able to ask him specific questions about his process.

What does this mean for comics folks? It means you can no longer set up a table or booth at a show, and just sell stuff. This goes for retailers, publishers and creators. Marvel and DC have been pretty good about turning their con booths into event stations. I haven't seen any other publishers really do anything like that yet, though. It doesn't have to be at the scale Marvel and DC are at -- they have substantial cash flows behind them -- but just selling books out of the Dark Horse booth isn't going to cut it.

(To be fair, now that I think on it, I have seen Dark Horse and Zenescope and some other publishers have creator signings at their booths. The events don't have to be huge, walk-through, photo op displays.)

The same can be done at the retailer level as well. This past year, I saw a t-shirt vendor at a convention who normally does okay business. But this year, he was able to secure Taimak ("Bruce Leroy" from The Last Dragon) to sit at his booth and do signings all day. He had a much better show, and the two people I was with were exstatic to get pictures and autographs.

So what's a creator to do? Well, the engagement level is smaller, and thus should be more personal and intimate. This can be a little difficult as not everyone who walks up will feel comfortable chatting casually with a creator they don't know. They might be shy, or want to avoid feeling guilty for not buying something. But maybe there's still some opportunity to be had. Maybe just telling jokes to break the ice. Maybe taking pictures and celebrating others who do purchase something. Maybe it's an ongoing skit/play-acting that you're doing with someone also sitting at your booth.

The point is that consumers (i.e. the people who might be interested in buying your stuff) are looking for more than a simple financial transaction. If you're not giving it to them, the gal/guy in the booth next to you might.

Friday, November 14, 2014

On Strips: Comic Rugs?

A little over a year ago, I moved into a new house. Very nice place, built in the early 1960s. Hardwood floors throughout most of the house. Including the room that became my comic book library.

Now, for as great as the hardwood floors look, my dog (his name is Quincy, by the way -- named after the iguana in Foxtrot) is not a big fan of them. He doesn't get a lot of traction with his paws, so he spends most of his day going from one small area rug to another. He's getting on in years, so I'd like him to be more comfortable throughout the house and we're in the process of getting some more rugs and such for him to get comfortable on.

The question at hand, then, is what about a rug in my library? I do spend a fair amount of time in there, and I'm sure Quincy would like to join me from time to time. But I would like any rug I put in there to be thematically appropriate. That is, it should have a comic character(s) on it. There's not much I'm finding out there, however.

There's a handful of bath mats that bear the logos and/or likenesses of various superheroes, but A) they're bathmats, not rugs, and B) because they're bathmats, they're a bit too small. (Quincy weighs in at around 75 pounds. He'd need something in 3' x 4' range.)

I've also found some latch-hook rugs and rug kits from the 1970s and '80s that bear Snoopy's or Garfield's likeness. But I can't work the kits, and the all the finished ones I've seen are too small anyway. (See above.)

So I'm going to throw out the question to see if I can get some crowd-sourced ideas on where I might find something appropriate. Like I said, I'd be looking for something in the 3' x 4' range. Ideally, I'd prefer a comic strip character, as opposed to a comic book character. And I definitely do not want any crossover type material, like cartoon characters who later showed up in comics (i.e. no Scooby-Doo or Mickey Mouse). Surely, there's something out there that would be suitable, right? What am I not seeing or not thinking to look for?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

On -isms: View from the Inside

Here's the conundrum for me: as I've mentioned many times before, I am a white, cisgendered, heterosexual male. Which means that I'm going to bring that background to any/every -isms issue that comes up. I certainly try to understand and appreciate where others are coming from, but it will always be an ongoing education for me. But since my white, cisgendered, heterosexual male perspective does enjoy some privledge on the soap box, I try to at least use this forum to highlight issues other people encounter.

So I read this recent interview with Afua Richardson, artist behind the impressive Genius from Top Cow. (I reviewed it over at FreakSugar.) It's a pretty good interview, getting into a lot more depth than most creator interviews I see online. But here's some of it that really stood out for me...
There seems to have been a really big demand for different kinds of stories, different cultures being represented beyond stereotypical portrayals. I'll just say it plainly—it's not white people misrepresenting black people or whatever. There has just been a very general approach to culture in a lot of comics, maybe because people weren't doing their homework.

Even among black creators, I notice they'll tend to make a lot of stories about the 'hood and Egypt and hip-hop and slavery. There's more to black people than that. We don't see any Southeast Asians of color. I don't think it's necessarily anyone's fault that these characters don't exist, beyond the misconception that a story with a female or person of color only appeals to that particular demographic. Now that that change is happening, I hope people go out and support it, because this is what they asked for!
Richardson says a lot there, and I think it's worth stopping a moment to unpack it.

First, she says she's seeing a demand for more than what we've seen in the past. More women, more people of color... but beyond that, more than just tokenism. She's talking about seeing a greater variety of characters with substance behind them. She doesn't name names, but I think it's fair to say she's referencing things like the new Batgirl, and Ms. Marvel, and Lumberjanes, and Rat Queens, and... It's not just that we're seeing more books starring women and minorities, but they're books of quality. They're stories that reflect a wider variety of people with different backgrounds, and they're told in a thoughtful, respectful manner. That's what she sees people asking for.

But the second part of her statement, which is equally important, is that readers go out and buy these books to support them. It's all well and good to say Kat Leyh's Bird Witch is a good book, but it doesn't tell her publishers that you want to see more of that unless you buy it. No matter how much a publisher might like a creator or their work, if that work doesn't sell, the publisher has ever incentive to stop publishing things like that.

So me sitting here talking about Richardson only helps up to a point. What needs to happen is that you're inspired enough to go pick up her work; that's how the publishers know to keep doing that type of thing. And if enough people do that, they'll be enticed to try to replicate those same types of stories with other creators as well. So we get not only Richardson and Leyh, but another dozen creators that are just as talented and telling equally engaging stories with viewpoints other than your own.

And that's not just me saying that. That's what Richardson, working on the inside as it were, is saying as well.