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The Blue Beetle was originally developed for Victor Fox's comic book Mystery Men Comics in mid-1939 by Charles Nicholas Wojtkoski, who went by the pen name Charles Nicholas. The character was created after Fox was sued by Detective Comics because his Wonderman character allegedly was too similar to Superman. The case had only just started when Nicholas created the Blue Beetle, and the book debuted about four months after Batman suggesting that Beetle was created as a Batman clone that was far enough removed to keep Fox from getting sued again. (Though influences from the Green Hornet are clearly evident.)

With Wonderman off limits during the lawsuit, Fox turned to Blue Beetle as his company's cornerstone character. The book sold reasonably well, and in the tail end of 1939, Fox decided to try to emulate Superman's media saturation by putting Beetle into his own comic strip. He began putting out ads to this effect in November of that year.
You'll note that the ad highlights Nicholas as the creator of the strip and, indeed, when the strip debuted in early 1940, it had Nicholas listed as the creator. However, it was actually the hand of a young Jack Kirby who did the strip. He makes no attempt to mimic Nicholas' style and, while the artwork in the strip is hardly Kirby's best, it is very classically idetifiable. While Kirby had done several other comic strips previously, this was his first superhero.

The Blue Beetle strip debuted in The Boston Evening Transcript on January 8, 1940. As far as anyone's been able to actually prove, that's the only paper it ever actually ran in. Kirby seemed to be largely left to his own devices with the strip. Aside from the Blue Beetle himself, Kirby seemed to be using his own cast of characters. Even with little continuity established in the comic book at this point, Kirby seemed unconcerned that it even existed.

While it's not Kirby's best art, he was more already more adept than most others at the storytelling of a daily strip. In the few sequences I've seen, he's able to run one installment to the next without either clumsily recapping what happened previously or letting readers get lost. Much like how he handled his Sky Masters strip decades later.
Kirby was only on the Blue Beetle strip for a few months, replaced by Louis Cazaneuve. At Fox's studio, Kirby had met Joe Simon and both men, who were independently moonlighting for other companies, saw the advantages of pairing up to become a studio of their own. "Simon and Kirby" was born in the pages of Blue Bolt comics by July 1940.

Fox continued trying to hype Blue Beetle, getting him his own radio show by May 1940 and hosting a "Blue Beetle Day" at the World's Fair in August. That radio program only lasted until September, though, and comic strip died out at the year's end. He never became the media sensation that Superman was. One wonders, though, what might have become of the character had Kirby never met Simon and continued on the strip.

While we're talking Kirby, this would have been his 98th birthday. Several years ago, his granddaughter Jillian started a Kirby 4 Heroes campaign that she runs every August to help raise money for the Hero Initiative. So please take a moment to head over to the Kirby 4 Heroes site and donate what you can to help comic creators in need.
One class of people that continue to get the short shrift are Native Americans. Within comics in particular, there are amazingly few creators out there and how they're represented as characters is frequently based on horrendously outdated stereotypes. I attended a "Native American Portrayals in Comics" mini-convention about eight years ago in Indiana and, from my perspective, things haven't changed all that much since. So I was pleasantly surprised to stumble acros The Outside Circle from Anansi Press about a week ago. It came out in May in Canada, and in June in the U.S. but I haven't seen any press about it.

The story is about an Aboriginal (that's Canadian for "Native American") young man who's arrested from gang-related activities. Much of the book follows his emotional journey while he's in prison, while touching briefly on some the difficult lives of some of his immediate relatives outside the prison walls. His younger brother gets himself wrapped up in gang after running away from the foster home system, his mother dies under "suspicious" circumstances probably related to her heroin addiction, and an uncle he never knew he had shows up while trying to locate their incredibly dispersed extended family.

I'd heard a report a couple months ago on the horrible treatment of Aboriginals by the Canadian government starting around 1870 and running for well over a century. There was an overt system of insitutional racism where Aboriginal children were removed from their parents' care, placed in state homes, and forced to separate themselves from any and every part of their native heritage. This obviously ravaged their collective culture, and caused immense and very personal pain and suffering on all of the families involved. To make matters worse, many of the children were flatly abused while in state custody.

The Outside Circle covers much of that ground. Although neither Pete (the protagonist) nor his brother spend any real time in that system themselves, they do see its effects very clearly. Much of the tale is very tragic in that regard, although I will say that it ends on a more positive and hopeful note.

One of the more interesting things about the story, to me, is that author Patti LaBoucane-Benson drops in a few pages of what could be mistaken for textbook material. The text of the contract where the mother signs over custody of her youngest son, for example, is actually a summary about that dreadful school system. When Pete gets a gang tattoo, it bleeds a timeline of government actions against Aboriginals. Coupled with some pages of exposition where a tribal elder details some of the broader effects of various government policies, a review of the book could easily sound like it's a dreadfully long-winded and boring history. But it really isn't. It's very much a well-crafted, personal story of Pete's journey, as I noted above, and the historical pieces are woven in for context. The exposition all flows very well into the story and makes sense narratively, plus it's given emotional resonance by tying it directly to Pete's current situation. Some of the infographic type pieces aren't quite as successfully integrated into the story, but those are considerably fewer in number and can easily be skipped over.

I have to say that I was really impressed with both the story overall, as well as the integration of the historical context. As I said, I was nominally familiar with the history thanks to that report I'd heard, but I suspect most readers would not be and there's more than sufficient material here to appreciate the tragedy what the Canadian government did to so many families. That it's intergrated at all into a very personal story is impressive, and that it's integrated as smoothly as it is doubly so. Given that (I believe) this is LaBoucane-Benson's first comic work of any sort, and it does not seem to have been a deep area of study for her, I think a lot of credit goes to illustrator Kelly Mellings for some top-notch storytelling abilities.

Like I said at the top of the piece, I think far too little attention is given towards Native American representation in comics. The Outside Circle not only helps to remedy that, but it does a damn fine job of showcasing part of the reason why we don't see more in the first place. I was incredibly impressed and highly recommend everyone pick this up!
  • Over at the Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez fan page on Facebook, they have posted 200-some pictures from the 1982 DC Comics Style Guide. It's an amazing collection of imagery!
  • Also on Facebook, Robert Beerbohm has an extended post recollecting how a conversation with Will Eisner led him to opening his first comic shop and how that, in turned, inspired several other shops to open up in the early 1970s.
When I first started collecting comics and going on the hunt for back issues, I was able to keep track of pretty much everything in my head. Even when I started having trouble remembering individual issue numbers, I could recognize covers pretty readily. But then I bough a copy of Fantastic Four #76.

I came home from, I think, one of the local mini-conventions with the find. Probably fairly cheap given that I was still in school. But when I went to file it away, I discovered I already had a copy! I'd apparently bought it before and didn't remember doing so. But then, when I started to slide the new copy behind the one I'd just realized I already had, there was ANOTHER copy there! I had already bought it once, forgotten it, bought it a second time, and forgotten both that I'd already bought it and also what must surely have been some annoyance at having discovered that I'd bought it a second time.

That's when I started keeping a written list with me. It was nothing elaborate, just a small sheet of note paper with the issue numbers I wanted hand-written on it. I'd scratch out the numbers as I picked them, and periodically re-write the list when it had too many scratches on it to be easily readible.

These days, of course, I use an online database which I can access via my phone. It includes a wishlist as well, so I can see what I'm actively looking for.

But do you know what oragnized people did before databases? This...
Well, honestly, I don't know for certain if anyone actually used one of these. I'm sure some folks must have bought them at least. Anyone out there recall seeing/using one?
One of the complaints I've heard from creators the past few years is that it's next to impossible to make money tabling at some of the larger pop culture conventions, like those that Wizard World puts on. A quick traipsing through Artist Alley will let you find a few comic creators, but there's a much greater percentage of what amounts to fan art. Not to dismiss the talent of any of the individuals back there, mind you -- many of them are exceptionally talented -- but they're selling almost nothing but works derivative of someone else's intellectual property.

This past weekend at Wizard World Chicago, there was an average of about one comic creator per row in Artists Alley. (Although the comics folks that were there seemed to be primarily in the first two ailses of Artists Alley, with the back half relegated to mostly artists just selling prints.) I only attended on Saturday, so I didn't get a chance to talk to everyone, but those that I did talk to basically said that they were doing okay financially. But only because they had some kind of deal set up where they weren't actually paying the full set of fees themselves anyway; someone was sponsoring them by covering the table fee and at least part of their travel expenses. In some cases, that seemed to be Wizard World itself! This jives with my observations last year.

Skeksis cosplay
What also struck me this year over previous ones was that cosplaying seemed down significantly. I only saw two costumes of any real note, one of them - a Skeksis - pictured here. One of the guys I was with was counting Harley Quinns, and didn't even get to twenty; he saw considerably more at Denver Comic Con back in May. Another friend went earlier, and was disappointed at how she saw almost none at all. (Granted, Thursday and Friday aren't big for cosplay in the first place.) I was also struck that, despite photos and footage floating around for a couple months, I saw zero movie-costume Deadpools; every Deadpool I saw was of the more traditional zentai variety.

The folks I talked to at the show all seemed to indicate that Wizard World was treating them well, acting on complaints and accomodating requests. But the traffic on the floor seemed... well, not light, but not overly crowded either. Now it could be that, in years past, congestion was caused by cosplayers stopping to have their photos taken and the lighter turnout there may have helped mitigate traffic issues. It's also possible that the show floor itself was rearranged to make wider ailses.

I'm reminder of the "holding pen" notion that another friend of mine floated last year. He pointed out that Wizard's making their money off the celebrity and actor autographs; everything on the show floor is basically a holding pen for people to wait (and spend money!) in between autograph sessions. So Wizard fills that with a flea market of pop culture ephemera.

I think Wizard realizes that this is indeed what it looks like and, for the past couple years, has been making overtures back to the comics community to try to alleviate the direction that they took themselves in. But they don't seem to be doing nearly enough as there seemed to be fewer comics folks this year than last. My guess that their approach, strategically, was very cynical as the holding pen idea suggests, but that they saw/heard what was happening from guests and retailers and started trying to compensate for that three or four years ago. But their approach seems to have been of the too-little-too-late variety, and they've got a show now with decreasing expectations for everyone attending. I'm sure the shows are still profitable for Wizard, but if they are sincere in their desire to attract more comics folks again, they're going to need to put a LOT more work into that!
Pictured here are two of the earliest comic strip reprint books that I ever owned: Garfield Bigger Than Life from 1981 and Heathcliff Does It Again! from 1982. I don't recall exactly, but I suspect they both came from those Scholastic book fairs that would occasionally happen in our school. You'll notice, of course, that the two books are formatted differently; the Garfield book is more horizontal closely matching the strip's format, while Heathcliff's is more vertical to accompany the more vertically oriented strip. Although the Heathcliff strip itself isn't quite as vertical as the book it's presented in, I can understand that a publisher might want to use the same dimensions that many other paperbacks they published were already using.

But here's my question: when did publishers start using the more horizontal format?

If you're familiar with strip reprint books from just a few years earlier than these, you might recall that they pretty much all looked about the same size as the Heathcliff book. Regardless of the strip's format, publishers would pay someone to basically cut up the comic strips (probably photostats, not the originals) and reposition all of the panels so that they worked for the vertical layout. Here are two more reprint books I have from 1965 and '68...

The panels of each Peanuts strip have been stacked to form something more square-ish, and then stacked again so there are two strips on each page. The Pogo strips was reconfigured entirely so there are six panels on a page; my understanding was that Walt Kelly himself reworked many of the strips and redrew portions so it fit the format better than his original horizontal layouts. These are hardly unusual; I can recall my father's old reprint books from his college days were all in the more vertical format regardless if they featured Snoopy, Andy Capp, or Captain Klutz. In fact, I never recalled seeing a horizontal strip collection like that before Garfield.

It turns out that it was, in fact, Jim Davis who pioneered the horizontal books! The Wikipedia entry for Garfield at Large reads as follows...
This book introduced the "Garfield Format" to the comic book market. Prior to its publication, comic strip compilations were originally formatted like a standard paperback book with the panels running down the page. Jim Davis, Garfield's author, disliked the idea and coerced Ballantine to print the strips from left to right, as they would have appeared in the newspaper. This resulted in the final product being shorter from top to bottom and much wider from side to side than the average paperback book.
Garfield debuted in newspapers in 1978 and was almost an overnight success and was running in over 800 papers by 1980. So when Ballatine was putting together the first Garfield collection that year, Davis had already amassed a good deal of clout -- already pulling in $15 million in merchandising. That kind of money (especially in 1980 dollars -- it's roughly the equivalent of $45 million today) carries with it a lot of weight, so Davis probably didn't have to do all that much convincing.

Not surprisingly, other strips followed suit and the horizontal format became more common. (Amusingly, I have a later Heathcliff book that uses that format, placing two of the vertical strips side by side so they fit on the wider page.) Although as many books include the larger Sunday strips as well, the precise dimensions of the "Garfield format" have grown appreciably taller. Though the books still remain wider than they are tall.

For as much as Davis is often dismissed as crassly catering to commercialization, I have to give him a lot of props for pushing forward a book format based on a form of artistic integrity!
The Blacker the Ink
For the past few weeks, off and on, I've been reading The Blacker the Ink, a collection of essays on "Constructions of Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art." That is, it's an examination of Black identity in comics as a whole; it looks at how various characters are portrayed and how they're perceived, as well as looking at Black creators and the impact they've had on the industry. Further, it's not just comic books, but also comic strips. It covers essentially anything that deals with Black identity as it shows up in/around comics.

The book is comprised of fifteen essays, each one examining a small portion of Blackness in comics. Sometimes focusing on an individual story. The topics range from the classic "Judgement Day" story from EC to Jeremy Love's Bayou that debuted on the web. There's a piece on precisely how Aaron McGruder learned about and incorporated Black Nationalism into The Boondocks, and another on the visual evolution of Luke Cage and how those changes reflect both the creators' approach to the character and how audiences receive them.

The essays are all written from a scholarly perspective, well researched and documented. Despite that, though, they were by and large very accessible, and not loaded with heavy "scholar speak" that professional journals frequently use. I did find the essays that were about books and stories I hadn't read a tad more difficult to parse, due to my unfamiliarity with the material, but I found there were enough examples of the comic stories themselves to get what the author was trying to illustrate. But I felt I got more out of the essays when I was more knowledgeable about the subject.

Which strikes me as an interesting point. In theory, if I'm starting from a knowledge-base of zero, I should have more to learn than if I'm reading about topics with which I'm already familiar. But instead I found I was getting more and deeper insights when I had already studied the books myself. I'm not sure if that speaks to the thought the authors put into their work, or a complete lack of thought I put into reading the pieces they were talking about.

In any case, I found myself learning a great deal about Black identity in general, both how it's presented and how it's interpreted. The same type of approach, I'm sure, could have been done with film or television or whatever, but that this book covered comics meant that I found myself more engaged with the material and more appreciative of what I missed in reading all the comics I have so far. I'm hoping now I can tackle some of the books I'm unfamiliar with better eyes, and get a deeper appreciation of what I'm reading the first time through. I'd call that well worth it!

(Full disclosure: I know one of the editors and two of the essayists; however, I've never discussed the contents of the book with any them.)